Tag Archives: marsupials

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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Finally. The one you’ve been waiting for.

The list of bizarre sexual rites in the animal kingdom is almost too numerous and well-documented to enumerate. Even if I were to define “lust” by the quantity of sex a species has, as opposed to just the quality, I’d be writing until you fell out of your chair, stunned by the sheer depravity and shocking variety taking place in the name of sexual selection. For example, lions in heat will mate 20-40 times a day for several days in a row, and the male lion’s corkscrew-shaped penis has backwards-facing barbs which both help him stay attached and rake the vagina to induce estrus. A pig’s orgasm can last half an hour. And how do porcupines make love? Very carefully… and also insatiably, as the female is only in heat for 8-12 hours a year. With only a half-day window of opportunity, the female will mate with a lover until he is exhausted, and then move right on to the next. Conjugal visits begin with foreplay which involves the male hosing the female with urine from six feet away.

My natural pick for an animal to represent “lust” would be the bonobo, a chimp-like ape which uses constant sex as a means of social bonding. However, since I’ve already written about the bonobo in another context, I’ll have to choose something new. Reproduction being essential for life, it’s hard to define “lust” as an over-indulgence in the animal kingdom; animals that procreate often are just fulfilling their biological imperative. But there are a few cases so exceptionally naughty, so blue, so indisputably NSFW that I am forced to admit that, when it comes to the dirty deed, Homo sapiens is a total prude.

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Let’s hear it for the nappers. Let’s hear it for the procrastinators, for the layabouts, the buddhas and the snooze button junkies. Let’s hear it for getting stoned mid-morning. For siestas, for Thanksgiving food comas, for sleeping in on Sundays and not going to church, for faked sick days. Let’s hear it for the dreamers; not the day-dreamers, half-cocked on hopeless ambitions and fantasies, but for the people who dream at night and cannot be bothered to quit in the morning. For you are Nature’s perfect creatures at the far, peaceable frontier of a violent kingdom.

The ultimate animal to represent Sloth is the Sloth; in the mammal world, it is simply the paragon of effortless existence. But since I already wrote about the sloth, today I’ll write about Australia’s marsupial sloth analogue, the Koala.

It is an oft-repeated factoid that the koala sleeps for 18-22 hours a day; the average koala is awake for a mere 2 years out of the 12 of its lifetime. Like the sloth, it needs that rest to digest the leaves that make up its diet, leaves being extremely poor in nutrition. While the sloth has at least some variety in its salad, the koala is a specialist on par with the panda: it eats only one type of leaf, that of the eucalyptus, which is highly toxic and completely undigestible by almost any other animal. The lack of competition, the surplus of eucalyptus, and the fact that eucalyptus makes koala flesh taste like a poisonous cough drop has made the koala quite successful. The koala has done well for itself by doing almost nothing.

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Vice Week continues with The Seven Deadly Sins. The next seven posts will describe an animal or animals that exemplify Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Pride, and Lust. And no, “Sloth” will not be a Sloth, because I have already done the Sloth, because I cannot plan ahead.

When I think of animal gluttons, the first thing to come to mind is the Wolverine, whose other name is “the Glutton.” In fact, his scientific name, Gulo gulo, is Latin for “Glutton glutton.” The largest of the weasels, wolverines make up for in ferocity what they lack in stature. The adamantium skeleton doesn’t hurt, either.

You wanna dance, bub?

A wolverine can bring down a moose. They’re not particularly fast, but because of their broad feet they can outrun almost anything in deep snow. They’ve been known to challenge grizzly bears for a meal. And while they can eat a lot in one sitting, because they don’t eat often in those Arctic winters, they’re not the most gluttonous animal I can think of.

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The Ghosts of Tasmania

So far we’ve covered extinct animals, animals that narrowly escaped extinction, and animals that are on extinction’s doorstep. Here’s a new one: an animal that is extinct, but refuses to die.

It’s a thylacine. People variably call it a Tasmanian Tiger or a Tasmanian Wolf, but it is neither tiger nor wolf. It’s the modern world’s largest marsupial predator. So we’ll call it a thylacine.

Once, thylacines hunted all over the continent, the apex predators of Australia. They had the strongest bite power of any living animal (an honor passed down to its cousin, the Tasmanian Devil), and were one of only two marsupials in which both sexes have pouches. (The male’s pouch was simply to protect his junk while running through undergrowth.) They were sleek, strong, and had a stomach that could distend to fit a small kangaroo.

The dingo, a wild dog introduced by humans millenia ago, practically drove them off the mainland, but they remained on Tasmania. When Europeans settled on the island, they systematically trapped, poisoned, and shot them to protect their sheep. In 1933, the only known thylacines left were put in the Hobart Zoo. When they died in 1936, the species was declared extinct.

Then a funny thing happened: there were sightings of wild thylacines. Continue reading

An Alternative History of Antarctica

After mind-controlling fungi and hirsute crabs from other dimensions, I think it’s time for something cute.

Is it a mouse? Nope, it’s Australia’s mountain pygmy possum, which, in an awesome display of convergent evolution, has become mouse-like despite the fact that it’s a marsupial. It is one of very few animals to live at the top of the highest, coldest mountains on the continent, such as the Snowies in New South Wales, and has adapted to the alpine environment by becoming Australia’s only hibernating animal. The mountain pygmy possum is extremely endangered, partly because cold mountains are so rare on the world’s hottest continent… and on a swiftly warming planet . In fact, it was known only from fossils and was considered extinct until it was discovered alive in 1966. In a place with some of the world’s weirdest mammals, this very normal-looking creature is, in fact, one of its most unique.

And it’s that unique quality, the ability to survive freezing temperatures south of the equator, that make it the focus of today’s post. Because the continent I’m interested in isn’t Australia, but Antarctica.
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