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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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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Power Plant

Lace up your boots and follow me on a nature hike through these low Berkshire mountains of Western New England in early March. The air is thick with sunlight, as the red oak trees and alders haven’t yet leafed out, and their branches are just the latticework of a window on the sky. The ground still has a cover of snow, but you can smell the melting water beneath it as last Autumn’s leaves exhale a musty yet bread-like scent. Except for a few cedars, nothing is green yet. Nothing, except for some ugly, purple-green spikes sticking out of the snow. Come to think of it, they’re not so much sticking out as they are simply uncovered, as if the snow was too repulsed to touch them. And come to think of it, it’s not just fresh snowmelt you’re smelling. The woods have taken on the distinctive smell of buttcheese. You approach the ugly, stinky butt flowers.

Now, stick your finger in it.

And wiggle it around on my spadix while you're at it.

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Baby Fat

So, how badly do you wish you could have just slept through this entire winter? There are many ways to hibernate, but one style of hibernation stands out as especially advantageous. You never wake up, you give birth while you’re asleep, and perhaps best of all, you lose your body fat without losing your muscle. Imagine being able to eat as much as you want, go to sleep, and wake up ripped. There are only two animals we know of that can burn significant amounts of fat without losing muscle mass. One is a baby. The other, a bear.

Which is basically a baby.

It is hotly debated by experts whether what bears do can be called hibernation. After reviewing the evidence, I stand with those who say it is. It’s simply a hibernation for the big-boned fellas. See, the little guys, like chipmunks, hibernate by lowering their body temperature dramatically. A bat, for example, can lower its body temperature almost to the freezing point. But they keep a food store handy, and every few days they heat up and wake up to eat and defecate before falling back into torpor. A bear, on the other hand, slows its metabolism a great deal, but doesn’t chill its body temperature appreciably. So if you were spooned by a sleeping grizzly, you’d still be nice and toasty, if a little unsafe. What’s more, though a bear can go from being a deeply unconscious heap of fur to 700 lbs of bitchy fury in about 30 seconds when disturbed — again, spoon carefully — it can go up to seven and a half months without waking up once. It recycles its urine for hydration, and is the only animal known to be able to transform urea — the yellow, poisonous part of urine which must be excreted from the body — back into valuable protein. As for defecation, the bear creates a dense “fecal plug” of intestinal secretions and dried poop that corks up the bunghole to prevent any “accidents.”

I've been asleep since November, I haven't eaten or shitted for five months, I woke up with two kids I don't remember having, and I haven't had my coffee yet.

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Resurrection Fern

I have a resurrection plant. I sometimes call it a resurrection fern, even though I know that’s a different plant entirely; mine is Selaginella lepidophylla, a club-moss native to the American Southwest, while true resurrection ferns are Polypoidium polypolioides, native to the American South. But both the moss and the fern, as well as a few other plants in the world, perform the same incredible feat: they return to life from the brink of death.

Both resurrection moss and fern live with little to begin with. The moss is a desert plant, sometimes called flor de piedra, the stone flower. During periods of drought, the resurrection plant curls up into a tight little fist, brown and nearly desiccated, for all appearances dead. It becomes a tumbleweed, rolling with the desert wind in search of the next patch of mud. Finding something to drink, a remarkable change takes place: its cells rehydrate in a mere hour or two, and the fist opens into a hand. A few hours later, it becomes green again. The dormant machinery that powers it, all the organelles of its chloroplasts, revive and whir into action. Sunlight becomes sunlight again. Just a kiss of moisture, and it walks out of its own grave. The resurrection plant may tumble around the desert lifelessly for a century waiting for such a blessing.

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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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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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