Je Ne Sais Quoi

Pity the poor peacock. He can truss himself up in iridescent blues and greens built of billions of intricate, light-catching nanostructures in the feather barbules; he can fan his train of tail feathers that open their hundred eyes to a peahen like an adoring audience; he can coo, bob his head, and shiver so that he positively glimmers like blue bonfire in the forest; and still, the female — who isn’t even that hot — can sniff and walk away. He is the product of millions of years of sexual selection for extravagance, and possesses the most spectacular, show-stopping plumage in the world, but he is far from irresistible. Having seen plenty of peacocks in my life, nowadays I’m more intrigued by the peahens and their discerning gaze. So frustratingly fickle! So charmingly coy! It’s that pickiness that has undoubtedly driven the male to such desperate majesty.

Who hasn’t felt a little like a peacock at times, trying their best to be noticed by the object of their affection and falling short no matter what? What am I doing wrong?, I’ve asked myself. What am I missing? What could she possibly be looking for? I find myself sympathizing with the peacock and his unrequited attempts at winning love on the zoo lawn, coldly rebuffed time after time until he’ll display for any toddler in a pair of brown overalls. Because peacocks look more or less equally fantastic to us, we can’t imagine why a female chooses one and not another. Some guys just don’t have it, the biologists tell us, after a peahen takes a pass on a shimmering fountain of male grandeur. Not wanting to guess the mind of a peahen, they throw up their hands and decline to say what “it” is. That certain something that captures the peahen’s heart. That je ne sais quoi.

Ice cold.

Well, to hell with that! Je veux savoir “quoi”! If the peacock can look like that and still get shot down in flames, unless it possesses that je ne sais quoi, I think I speak for males of all species when I say I sure as hell want to know what the “quoi” is.

Instead of a peacock, let’s talk about its simpler, arachnid analogue, the Peacock Spider. I recently discovered this charming little guy via the famous and fabulous Myrmecos blog, the hot place to be for gorgeous insect photos and bug scuttlebutt. Like its namesake, the Australian peacock spider females are dun and its males garish, with an amazing technicolor dream-abdomen that fans out like a peacock’s tail. Like the bird, the peacock spider male does a display dance for the cautious and picky female, though his involves waving his third pair of legs in the air as if to say, “Hey, baby! Hey! Over here!”

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Rosie the Riveter

Chick flick or no, you cannot deny the greatness of the 1992 film A League Of Their Own. It’s a comedy, a history, and one of the best baseball films of all time. It’s got memorable lines (“There’s no crying in baseball!”), memorable characters, an all-star cast, and is singularly responsible for starting my lifelong crushes on both the statuesque red-headed Amazon genius Geena Davis and the totally underrated tomboy hottie Lori Petty. More importantly, it’s the only movie I know that tells the story of American women fulfilling traditionally male roles during World War II, a fairly significant turning point in the feminist movement.

Also, Madonna did not sing.

I bring it up because I was recently discussing both the movie and the movement around the campfire with a co-worker. Later in the evening, another co-worker and I were discussing birds, and he told me an incredible story about chickadees. I knew that chickadee flocks work a little like wolf packs, with a few mated pairs in an alpha-beta hierarchy, plus the occasional floating loner. Usually, the death of an alpha male or female means that the beta male or female moves up the ladder to take his or her place in the alpha marriage. But according to my friend, this is not always so simple. He watched a flock of banded chickadees for a year, and noticed something peculiar: the alpha female lost her mate over the winter, and in the spring, the alpha female was singing male songs. What’s more, she passed over the beta male in favor of a socially less-desirable floater for a mate, and whenever the new husband would try to sing, the alpha female would fly over and knock him off his perch. Clearly, once she had gotten a taste of the male chickadee lifestyle and the power that confers, she was reluctant to part with it.

And he was reluctant to admit he kind of liked it.

Between the discussion of the WWII female factory workforce, A League Of Their Own, and the chickadee story, I got to wondering: what other bird species are there in which the female wears the proverbial pants? I know that in some species, male birds take on traditionally female roles, such as the egg-incubating male ostrich. And in others, the females are showier than the males; when Belted Kingfishers go to prom, it’s the ladies who wear the cummerbund. But to see a true display of gender-bending, you need to travel to the Arctic Circle to see the breeding grounds of the phalaropes.

"Don't worry, I've also never heard of me."

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Long-Distance Relationship

When you are a child, you imagine animals pairing off neatly, like Noah’s menagerie coupling and marching up the gangplank to the chapel of bestial matrimony. Lovebirds are joined at the hip like a tween romance, and two swans form a perfect heart-shape with the teacup-handle arcs of their necks. Then you grow up, take a few biology courses, and discover that everything you thought was wrong. To your dismay, you realize that animals, even the kind that seem to exist in a monogamous marriage of sorts, cheat on one another constantly. Lovebirds get a little action on the sly; cuckoos can be cuckolded; monkeys can be real swingers; owls can get a little extra loving after midnight; house sparrows can be homewreckers; even swans, those regal symbols of romantic love swimming atop a wedding cake, are less backyard birds than backdoor men. In the avian world, it’s estimated that 90% of bird couples are socially monogamous (as opposed to 7% in mammals), but of those, 90% are sexually non-monogamous. Long under the spell of prudish human social norms and presuming fidelity among animals, scientists now seem to revel in revealing the promiscuity of the animal kingdom. But if polyamory is the true norm, that makes the monogamous animals the true weirdos, and therefore worth a closer look-see. What is the biological root of monogamy?

Dads with shotguns?

Without cracking open the scientific Ark of the Covenant that question implies, or the world’s largest can of worms that is human sexuality, let’s just talk about the birds. (And, this time, not the bees.) Can anything be said of that thin sliver of avifauna that is both sexually and socially monogamous? Yes, it seems. Most of the few birds that are both socially and sexually monogamous do it for the same reason many married couples do: for the kids. These are birds that live in such a hostile habitat that it takes every ounce of parental care to nourish their chicks. In other words, the parents would cheat on each other; they just don’t have the time or energy.

Not tonight, honey. I've got a *zzzzzzzz*

Seabirds in rocky, windy, or icy climes — like Emperor Penguins — make up the majority of sexually monogamous pairs, but one type of bird creates a hostile habitat for itself specifically so it cannot engage in extra-marital canoodling. That’s because in this species, the female is literally imprisoned behind a wall. It’s the Monteiro’s Hornbill of Namibia, and it is a master mason on the level of an Edgar Allen Poe antagonist. A mated pair of hornbills will scope out a suitable neighborhood to nest, preferably a stand of old-growth forest with large cavities in the trees. The holes may have been made by a fallen branch, or may have been carved out by a woodpecker. But however it’s made, it should be large enough for the female to enter and sit comfortably. She chooses carefully, because she’s going to be inside for a very long time.

Also, how are the schools?

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Double or Nothing

Nine out of ten Earthlings agree: Nothing beats a hot pair of twins. If you are already attracted to someone, the only thing that can possibly improve their overall hotness is discovering that there is two of them. In fact, that’s the best theory I’ve heard yet to describe why identical twins, as a phenomenon, are so popular in everything from DoubleMint Gum commercials to Playboy spreads: we singletons tend to objectify them as the same person with the advantage of having two bodies. But biologically speaking, does having a clone confer any advantage to you as an individual, or even to you as a species?

There are some questions better left unasked.

First, a primer on twinning. Dizygotic twins, otherwise known as fraternal — or, in the case of two females, which is more common, sororal — twins are the product of two separate eggs, and form in two separate placentas. In humans, having any kind of twin is a gamble — even a fraternal twin is five to seven times more likely to die in the womb than a singleton fetus, and at much higher risk of mental retardation, learning disabilities, respiratory problems, cerebral palsy, and a host of other health problems. But in the animal world, di- or polyzygotic young are the norm; we call them litters. In a cruel world, a species usually cannot count on only children to further itself, and so hedges its bets with siblings.

With dizygotic twins, it is possible to produce siblings with different genetic defects.

More rare in humans and other animals are monozygotic twins; that is, identical twins developed from a single egg and placenta. You might be a twin or know a twin who looks very different from his or her womb-mate, as environmental factors such as lifestyle choices and childhood illnesses cause certain genes to express themselves in one twin and not another. Identical twins may share the same DNA, but don’t bear the same fingerprints. I’m a singleton myself, but sometimes I imagine a hypothetical twin brother I might have had who works out, is a vegetarian, and hasn’t been drinking coffee daily since age 14. He is 6’1″, physically fit, has a normal haircut, and I secretly hate his guts.

Happy as he was for his brother Paul, Morgan Hamm had to wonder if he took the silver medal because he had eaten a second slice of birthday cake at age 9.

Twins in human reproduction seem to be a happy accident; after all, twins make up a mere 2% of the world’s population, with identical twins or triplets constituting only 8 percent of those, or 0.2% of all people. But what about species in which twinnage is fairly common? Can producing two or more genetically identical offspring be a successful reproductive strategy? At first glance, the animals that frequently have twins have little in common: ferrets, cats, sheep and deer all frequently bear twins, and polar bears almost exclusively do. But for popping out passels of identical bundles of joy, one mammal has the rest beat: the nine-banded armadillo, which as a rule produces litters of identical quadruplets.

Nothing beats a hot pair of twins, except two hot pairs of twins.

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Stranglehold

Ficus. Its name is synonymous with low-maintenance, unobtrusive office plants. But in the wide Ficus genus, there are a few species of fig trees that are anything but tame. In fact, they have a predilection for death and domination. This story is about two distinctly different creatures whose lives are inextricably linked: the strangler fig and the fig wasp. It is a story about sex and murder in Florida. Mostly, it is a story about the mentality and biology of control. One of these partners-in-crime kills by slowly choking the life from its victims, and the other is its accomplice, furthering its domination of the forest with rape and incest. To be sure, you’ll never look at Fig Newtons the same way again.

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Radioactive

The world is watching in horror as Japan begins to suffer the effects of massive radiation poisoning following the earthquake’s destruction of several nuclear reactors. Our primary concerns right now are for the beleaguered people of Japan as they struggle to survive and contain this catastrophe. But once the immediate threat has passed, as we all pray it will, the question that must be answered is no less important, as it is far further-reaching: What will the impact of the irradiated sites be on the environment? And what effect will nuclear radiation have on the local wildlife?

First, a primer on radioactive decay for those who are neither science-minded nor paranoid survivalists with their own Spam collection. Radioactivity is the release of particles from the nucleus of an atom as it loses energy. We receive most of our Daily Recommended Value of radiation directly from the sun, or from the Earth, primarily as radon gas. We are constantly bombarded with cosmic radiation. It’s what mutates our genes and moves evolution forward, and also gives you a wicked tan. In fact, it’s all we can do to shield ourselves from normal levels of radiation, so the particles streaming from decaying atoms of a heavy isotope of uranium or plutonium are especially dangerous. Alpha particles — bundles of two protons and two neutrons shooting from the nucleus as the atom decays — are relatively harmless, as they’re too slow to penetrate the skin. Beta particles, which are electrons, are a hundred times faster, but are too small to penetrate skin. But ingest an element that’s shedding these particles, and they will bounce around in your cells like ricocheting bullets, destroying all the DNA in their path. And as far as radiation that can penetrate your skin, like electromagnetic gamma rays, I think we all know what happens when you play with that stuff.

Overly ponderous yet ultimately respectable Ang Lee movies?

If, like me, your first exposure to the concept of radioactivity comes from comic books, let’s set the record straight. While radiation can be used to do things like destroy cancer, rumors of its magical healing properties have been greatly exaggerated. My favorite example is the radium-laced “tonic water” jars that were briefly popular in the beginning of the 20th century, according to the belief that drinking irradiated water gave you vim and vigor. American industrialist tycoon Eben Byers was a promoter of this revivifying elixir, and had a bottle every day. When he died in 1932, the Wall Street Journal headline read, “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.” Having ingested more than three times the usual lethal dose of radiation over the course of his lifetime, he was buried in a lead-lined coffin.

Some preferred to take all their nuclear radiation in one big dose.

And there is the sad truth about radiation. Subject an iguana to radioactivity, and it doesn’t grow into Godzilla; it just pukes and dies. A bite from a radioactive spider is less likely to give you spider-like powers than it is to endow you with a superhuman inability to bear children. Coat turtles in radioactive goo, and they don’t turn into ninjas. They just get cancer.

Godzilla: Not Realistic.

So what might happen to the irradiated animals of Japan? To get a glimpse into the potential danger of radioactive wildlife, we don’t need to consult science fiction stories or comic books. We just need to examine the results of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and its legacy, including terrifying and true story of the packs of radioactive wild boars causing havoc in Germany today.

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Dead Reckoning

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” wrote Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass. But it’s not true when that backwards-thinking memory is spectacular. Those few with truly eidetic memories, also called photographic memories, have mixed feelings about the power, but there’s no arguing that the ability isn’t incredible. Witness Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic savant and architectural artist who can draw an entire city skyline from memory from just one helicopter ride, or a cathedral after a glance. Or remember the late Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, who was estimated to have the complete content of 12,000 books committed to memory. Truly, memory is the library of the mind.

Then there are more or less fortunate people with hyperthymesia, or perfect autobiographical memory. Instead of memorizing the names and numbers of everyone in the phonebook, a person with hyperthymesia can recall with unblinking clarity everything they’ve ever experienced in their life. There have only been six documented cases of hyperthymesia in the world, but in each case, the patient can remember every detail of every day they’ve lived: what color shirt they wore, the faces of people who passed them in traffic, the arbitrary shapes of clouds. Every slight, every embarrassment, every victory, every heartbreaking moment. Forgetfulness is the gardener of memory, and hyperthymetics live in an unweeded wilderness of places, times, and emotions. In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Funes el memorioso, the author invents a character with such a remarkable memory that he can relive a previous day’s events in real time, which, of course, takes an entire day to do. Funes is cursed by the inability to understand abstractions; able to remember absolutely every experience in crystal clear detail, he cannot understand the need to generalize. Poetry and dreams are beyond him. Every moment in the past is just as real to him as the current one, and his life one unbroken and contiguous chain of events interrupted only by sleep.

I remember a man on the streets of Prague who would make money from tourists by betting them that he could tell them their area code with only the name of their hometown. What I didn’t realize then was that anyone is capable of such feats of memorization, with practice. Mnemonists can memorize the sequence of a deck of shuffled playing cards in under 25 seconds, or the names of 1,500 conference attendees after hearing them once. Humans can do this by the use of mnemonic devices: acronyms, memory journeys, and storytelling. Our species is lousy at remembering abstractions — the opposite of memory, you’ll recall — but pretty good at remembering images and places. So a mnemonist will associate numbers (which are abstract concepts) with pictures and turn the first 100,000 decimal places of pi into a kind of mental comic book. Or they will take every line from The Iliad, turn each line into an image, and store each image somewhere in a “memory palace” (the remembrance of a well-known building, like one’s home) where the images can be “collected” in sequence. The spatial memory that helps you navigate your world is actually pretty keen; we lab rats have figured out the maze of our own construction quite nicely. But when it comes to spatial memory, there’s at least one animal who makes humans look like babes in the woods.

You look a little lost, dear.

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