Tag Archives: camouflage

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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I recently had a conversation with a crazy red-headed friend of mine about his crazy red-headed ex-wife and why their crazy red-headed daughter is so crazy. You know the stereotype: redheads are supposed to be sharp-tongued, hot-headed, sex-crazed nutjobs. This led me to wonder: Are redheads actually nutjobs, and if so, why would that be true?

My first instinct is to say that the stereotype is bunk. It fits a pattern of maligning every genetic phenotype for the purpose of convenient pigeonholing, and holds no more water than saying that all blondes are dumb, or that big-handed men are well-endowed. The world population of redheads, currently estimated at 1%, would seem to have no more nutjobs in it than any other hair color, and there are plenty of level-headed gingers in the world. The recessive gene that gave us Caligula was the same that gave us Queen Elizabeth I.

Though as far as “sex-crazed,” we can only fantasize.

(In the interest of full disclosure: While not a redhead per se — my hair color was once described by a hairdresser friend as “medium maize” — I come from a redheaded family and even express the gene in the form of a perfectly ginger beard when I go too long between shaves. So as a below-the-ears redhead, I’m not exactly neutral. However, I can say objectively that my immediate family is composed of sharp-tongued hot-heads of which I am one. As for the sexual proclivities of redheads, I’ll decline to comment because, hey, that’s my sister.)

Cultural stereotypes aside, I’m intrigued by the fact that a gene for coloration could carry with it a gene for some other effect. For example, the efficiency of some birds’ immune systems are linked to plumage color. And as Darwin noticed, albino animals are more prone to deafness. So is it possible for the redhead gene to carry with it another gene which might influence behavior? Actually, yes.

First: A Natural History of Redheads. Red hair is caused by the pigment phaeomelanin, which is in turn caused by a mutation in the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) protein which is controls what type of melanin our cells produce. So, essentially, redheads are mutants. But the reason for the evolution of this mutation is unclear. It is found in people worldwide, even in Africans, Aborigines and Persians, but of course it’s most prevalent in Western and Northern Europeans, where it is expressed by 2-6% of the population. One theory posits that the defective MC1R receptor was successful in Europe for the same reason white skin was: pale people absorb more heat and more ultraviolet radiation, which can make all the difference in sun-forsaken countries prone to Vitamin D deficiencies. Essentially, the MC1R mutation served to make your whites whiter. (The Neanderthals possessed the ginger gene, too. Somewhere in prehistoric Europe was a club-wielding caveman Ron Howard.) The only problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence for positive selection in this environment; blondes get sunburns just like redheads, so the recessive gene shouldn’t have given any advantage to our freckly forefathers and should thus have been squelched.

Also, it can’t explain why Carrot Top’s ancestors weren’t violently erased from the genetic line.

A second proposal is that red hair was promoted not by competitive selection, but by sexual selection. (Somewhere in prehistoric Europe was a berry-picking, wolfskin-clad Christina Hendricks.) As a fan of redheaded girls as much as the next guy with a pulse, I’m more inclined to trust this hypothesis. After all, phaenomelanin is also the pigment responsible for the red coloration of the lips, the nipples, the head of the penis, and the vagina. The secret to your good looks, my redheaded readers, is your vagina-colored hair.

Sexual selection for the mutated MC1R receptor among early hominids.

But what the mutant MC1R receptor also carries is a different relationship to pain. The same MC1R receptor that receives the melanocyte-stimulating hormone which colors your hair also receives another, more popular hormone: endorphins. (The two hormones are structurally similar.) A 2005 study concluded that redheads are more sensitive to thermal pain, while another found that redheads feel more pain at the dentist and needed 20% more anesthesia than blondes or brunettes. However, another study was said to prove that redheaded women have a higher pain threshold than blondes and brunettes, at least when the pain was noxious (such as electric shocks) and not thermal (such as a curling iron). So, which is it? Are redheads pansies or bad-asses? Are they both? Are they neither? And if red hair really does effect pain thresholds, would that say anything about a common behavior?

As if this article couldn’t get ridiculous enough, let’s make an awkward segue into the “zoological mystery” segment of our program: What if the answer to redheaded temperament and licentiousness could be found in those ultimate redheads, the orangutans?

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Your Lying Eyes

The sunbittern of Central and South America appears, at first glance, to be a very normal and nondescript water bird. This knee-high, heron-like hunter is cryptically colored to blend in with the leaf litter around the stream beds where it pecks at snails, frogs, and small fish.

But if the camouflage fails, and a predator or rival gets too close, the sunbittern unleashes its full fury:

Suddenly, the bird has disappeared and a bug-eyed beast from hell has materialized in its place. Today, we reconsider an ecological classic: false eyespots.

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The Wide Sargasso Sea

There is a sea with no shores. It is bound on all sides by a gyre of ocean currents, and inside the sea it is as calm as a hurricane’s eye. So stagnant is the water that sargassum kelp chokes the surface of the ocean, giving it the appearance of a great, flat, unweeded garden. That sargassum gives it its name, the Sargasso Sea, though stories of ships becoming caught in tendrils of seaweed was pure myth. The tendency of ships to disappear in the Sargasso Sea had nothing to do with the seaweed and everything to do with the fact that there is no current and no wind, and so it earned the sort of superstitious infamy only sailors can invent: The Bermuda Triangle. The Horse Latitudes, so called because Spanish ships mired in its dead spot would jettison their war horses overboard to conserve water. The Doldrums.

Here are a few animals that thrive in The Doldrums.

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Instructions For Vanishing Into The Sky

Shark Week continues here on The Quantum Biologist. Today: The world’s smallest shark, and how to camouflage with the sky.

And here it is, the dwarf lanternshark. Found only in the deepest waters off the coast of Venezuela, it measures an incredible six inches… so, not exactly Jaws. With almost 400 species of shark in the world, you have to imagine that most of them are not very scary… sharks tend to be small and skulking and often very lazy. But the elasmobranchs, the cartilaginous fishes that include sharks, are also wonderfully diverse, including the 60-foot whale shark, a gentle plankton-eater that is the largest fish in the world, and the diminuitive dwarf lanternshark, and the whip-tailed thresher shark, and the ray-like angelshark. And what makes the dwarf lanternshark more interesting than its shrimpy size is another item of shark diversity: it glows in the dark.

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Be The Home You’re From

Way back in the sloth post, I said that the more stable an ecosystem, the more animals would be able to host other animals on them and become microcosms of their world. With that in mind, this is the decorator crab:

And so is this.

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God Loves Ugly

This little cutie made a cameo in my last post, which was about beauty… which it does not possess. So let’s do a post about ugliness. Because Nature makes peacocks, and it also makes lazy, ugly puddles of fish that you want to poke with a stick.

Solo! Hay lapa no ya, Solo!

The blobfish of coastal Australia does not do much. It has very few muscles; note the tiny, useless pectoral fins. It lives in deep water with incredibly high pressure, making a swim bladder (the internal gasbag that makes most fish buoyant) ineffective. Instead, it has a body made of gelatinous flesh that is slightly more buoyant than water, which allows it to float barely above the surface, waiting for small animals to pass close enough to its mouth that it can suck them in.

It also has a cousin, the lumpfish. It is also not going to win any beauty contests.

Ugliness is considered the absence of beauty, which is itself a product of geometry, pheremones, and beer. So what function does ugliness play? Well… it’s functional. Ugly is what happens when survival is more important than making an impression, when cryptic texturing will save you or fur would hinder you. The world is lopsided, imperfect, and off-balance, full of leaf litter and jagged rocks. Ugly blends in with the world. Ugly can go places pretty can’t. Ugly works.