49. Deserts: Reflections Upon an Often Unappreciated Land

Deserts must be the Rodney Dangerfield of Earth’s landscapes. They just, “don’t get no respect.” If one searches for synonyms for the desert, words such as barren, desolate, wasteland, and desolation pop up. These are not the sorts of descriptions designed to make people excitedly rush to pack their things for a trip to a desert. My guess is that many a traveler glances out the car window and perceives a desert as a wasteland of monotonous, repetitive vistas, and little life. Far too easy it is to roar through the Sonoran or Mojave on I-10 and give this supremely arid land little due. Is it possible that seeing a desert in this way is an unfortunate misjudgment? Is it thinkable that, with a little practice and a degree of patience, deserts might be seen in an entirely different light? Perhaps so, consider these reflections.

First, a desert is what ecologists call a biome.  Biomes are large geographic areas each characterized by a particular climate, flora, and fauna. Deciduous forest, taiga, tropical rainforest, prairie, tundra, and coral reef would be other examples of biomes. I hadn’t visited a desert in quite a spell. I’ll use that as a poor excuse for needing a reminder that this biome is incredibly biodiverse and beautiful.

Even though we think of deserts as a specific type of biome, not all deserts are alike. For example, they may not always be the scorchingly hot realms we often assume. Some have seasonal cold periods. I once saw Saguaro National Park near Tucson blanketed in snow. The largest desert area on earth is also one of the most frigid places on the planet. Antarctica gets only a couple of inches of precipitation each year. By this standard it is a desert.

Deserts are places that receive ten inches or less precipitation each year.  Generally, they also have low humidity and high evaporation rates. Moisture that does fall doesn’t stick around for long. Much of it ends up residing in the bodies of the plants and animals living there.

Globally the desert biome has its distinctive subdivisions. The Sonoran Desert of Arizona is the place to look for the saguaro cactus or the elf owl for example. To see Joshua trees or a desert tortoise one would venture into the Mojave. For a picturesque mixture of creosote bush, yucca, and ocotillo the Chihuahuan Desert of southwestern Texas is the place to be. The Great Basin Desert of Nevada offers vast stretches of sagebrush flats and the chance to catch a glimpse of a fleeing sagebrush vole.

Likewise, the great sand dunes of the Sahara in Africa, the cold expanses of the Gobi in Asia, the ancient plains of the Namib lying on Africa’s Atlantic coast, and the fog swept ridges of the Chilean Atacama have their distinguishing plant and animal communities as well.

Joshua Tree National Park was the site of my most recent desert experience. Immersion in the Mojave Desert of southern California brought back memories of my first exposure to the desert biome and prompted me to recall why I find this rich, dry world so fascinating.

The temperature in the spring season was not fearsomely high. The thermometer registered around 80F. In nearby Palm Springs, hundreds of feet lower in elevation, the daytime temperature was 95F. But summer would be a different story. In both places, the heat of the day can reach 120F. For humans, this makes hiking a questionable and potentially dangerous proposition. For the organisms that make this place their home, evolutionary adaptations for surviving such extremes of temperature and aridness are required.

Like many of our national parks, Joshua Tree is heavily visited. On average, over eight thousand people per day enter the park, although most come during the cooler October to May time frame. Still, this adds up to around three million visitors per year. Naturally this can make for trails bustling with hikers. So it was that I unexpectedly encountered one of the desert’s great gems – its immense silence. Finding some shade beneath a huge boulder, and off the beaten path, my wife and I sat surveying our surroundings as we munched on a snack and rehydrated.

Of a sudden, I realized that there were no other human voices, no shrieks from excited children. I heard no loud, intrusive, disconnected chitchat from tourists walking along in oblivious detachment from the beauty of their surroundings. Only the wind, gently rustling through the pinyon pines and scrub oak, impinged upon the utter quietness. A psithurism such a sound was once called. This from the Greek word psithuros meaning whisper.

How rare it is these days to find oneself in a place that does not suffer the invasive, synthetic sounds of human activity. How easily one can imagine the calming stillness which was a daily gift for our early ancestors. There was something powerful about that noiselessness. I felt a quietening tranquility, a sensation of smallness in a big, big world. This is the way it should be the wind seemed to murmur.

As we sat, reveling in the ability to be alone in this wondrous place, we became aware of other sounds. But these were also natural resonances and added to the sense that we were privy to a special time and place. From a nearby pinyon pine issued a sharp plink plink call. Movement within the pine revealed a Bewick’s wren foraging for insects. Suddenly a tiny black and white rocket whizzed overhead accompanied by a rattling, screeee call. A white-throated swift, one of the world’s fastest birds, was patrolling its feeding grounds. The distinct buzz of tiny, rapidly beating wings sounded as a black-chinned hummingbird zoomed in and had a brief rest on a nearby brittlebush. From somewhere in the trees nearby came the trilling call of a black-throated sparrow. By sitting patiently and listening, we found that there was bird life all around us.

There were other desert inhabitants here too. An eye-catching movement alerted us to the presence of a young chuckwalla lizard. Cautiously it climbed onto a prime basking spot atop an inviting granite boulder. Reptiles lack the physiological mechanisms mammals possess which automatically regulate their body temperatures. Ours for example hovers, without conscious effort, around the commonly expressed standard of 98.6F. Reptiles rely more on behavioral mechanisms and environmental factors to maintain their body temperature. Reptilian temperatures may fluctuate more than ours, but they can behaviorally keep their body temperature within a comparatively narrow, preferred range. The chuckwalla was using such behavioral mechanisms now. By basking in the sun and orienting its body for maximum exposure, the lizard was raising its body temperature to an optimum high. Having successfully warmed itself, the chuckwalla could more efficiently hunt for prey. Should the lizard become too hot, it would resort to shade-seeking behavior to reduce its temperature.

Chuckwallas also have an interesting defense mechanism. When exposed to danger from a predator, they seek refuge within cracks in the rocks of their habitat. Here they inflate themselves by gulping air. This body expansion, their sharp claws, and rough, scaly skin help to securely wedge them into the rock crevice. Such behavior might prove effective against a bobcat or roadrunner but not the Cahuilla or Mojave people who once thrived here. By puncturing the lizard’s body with a spear or sharpened stick, the animal could then be drawn out. Tribal people in Death Valley made a specialized, barbed tool for capturing them. The chuckwallas were then eaten, most commonly by roasting them over coals.

Another desert dweller soon made an appearance. From beneath a cluster of hedgehog cacti, a small chipmunk-like squirrel appeared. Busily searching the ground for fallen seeds, fruits, and insects was a white-tailed antelope squirrel. Upon finding an appealing morsel, the squirrel sat upon its hind legs and, in typical squirrel fashion, manipulated the food with its forepaws. The underside of its tail, a startlingly white color and perfect for reflecting the sun’s rays, was arched over its back to act as a sunshade.

Foraging in the daytime like this can be risky. Overheating and respiratory water loss are possibilities for the rodent and can be life-threatening. Because of this, the diminutive squirrel will frequently retreat to a cooler, shady spot and press its belly to the ground. With limbs spread like a little skydiver, the squirrel can transfer body heat to the cooler soil. Most of the antelope squirrel’s water supply comes from the foods that it eats.

Sitting in the shade and scanning our surroundings, the richness of the desert became ever more apparent. Because we were sitting within the transition zone between desert scrub and the low montane forest, the plant life was especially diverse. Pinyon pines, whose nuts were once a staple in the diet of the Native Americans who lived here, and scrub oak were dominant. But a mere glancing about revealed beavertail and hedgehog cactus in bloom. Huge spikes of Mojave yucca flowers surged upward and were being heavily visited by bees searching for pollen or nectar. Mariposa lily, desert  paintbrush, apricot mallow, and ocotillo flowers added to the mosaic of colors visible around us. It was akin to sitting in a garden painting by Monet,  albeit one with a sense of propriety regarding flaunting one’s rich colors too extravagantly.




Visiting the Mojave was a marvelous experience and a timely reminder of how inherently fascinating a desert can be. It has been my good fortune to experience many of our planet’s biomes. Each, in its own way, displays the incredible power of the natural world to fill every available niche with living things of immense curiosity, intriguing lifestyles, and beauty. Organisms living in the desert are extraordinarily well-adapted for survival in their dry world.

Our American deserts are no less enthralling than other biomes. There is a recipe for reaping the rewards of the desert’s biological richness and beauty. It is this: start with a good portion of inquisitive mindset, add a dash of patient observation, stir in an appreciation for austerity, and blend all with an awareness of the fascinating array of biological adaptations needed to survive here. The completed dish will be deliciously pleasurable.




48. It’s August and a Killer is On the Hunt

If one pays close attention, the changing seasons are often well-advertised. These happenings, which mark the progression of nature’s calendar, offer an everchanging series of fascinating and entertaining events. Obvious examples might be the fall changes in leaf color here in our deciduous forests. In spring, the plaintive croaks of the diminutive chorus frogs announce that winter is over, or nearly so. The arrival of northern harriers and short-eared owls from their northern haunts is a good indication that winter is upon us.

But sometimes, the seasonal events are not so lavishly noticeable. I was recently reminded that, even in the heat of summer, I should keep my eyes open. If not, I might miss the chance to see one of nature’s seasonal dramas taking place right at my feet.

Strolling along recently, I happened to glance down at a sandy embankment that gently sloped away from my path. A blast of sand resembling a tiny river’s alluvial fan flew outward from a small hole in the ground. As I stopped to watch, the architect of this little project came backing out of the burrow. It was a wasp species known as a cicada killer, one I was familiar with and enjoy seeing because of its size and fascinating behavior.

And yes, they are frighteningly large. At nearly two inches in length, their robust body size makes them appear quite intimidating. Fortunately, cicada killers are not aggressive. The males are stingless, but the females can pack a wallop, especially if you happen to be a cicada. I have never been stung by one and, in fact, can’t recall knowing anyone who has. They don’t have the aggressive territoriality of wasps like the bald-faced hornet or yellow jacket. My experience has been that one can walk quite near cicada killers without any reaction on their part.

August seems to be the peak season for the burrowing activity of the cicada killer. But just why are they burrowing? Herein rests the reason I find them so morbidly fascinating. First, as their name suggests, they do hunt cicadas (around here people tend to call cicadas locusts, but that’s a different story). Normally these are the annual cicadas we can encounter every year, as opposed to the species which erupt periodically.

The wasp’s prey is killed, but not by the sting of the female. The plot thickens! The female will construct a burrow in dry, sandy, or loose soil that may be a foot or slightly more in depth. The burrow may be a couple of feet long or may extend several feet. Typically, there are side chambers too, often over a dozen.

The female cicada killer will then go on the hunt for the tree-dwelling cicadas. Locating one, she will deliver a sting which paralyzes the hapless cicada. Given the size of the cicada relative to the wasp, I find it amazing that the cicada killer is able to fly back to the burrow carrying its inert victim. Into one of the side chambers, she will drag the paralyzed cicada.

In each chamber containing a cicada, or a few, the wasp lays an egg. The egg will soon hatch into a larva that looks like a grub. This larva will now begin to consume the paralyzed, defenseless cicada. Within a week, or slightly more, nothing will remain of the cicada but a hollow shell. After feeding, the larva develops into a cocooned pupa which will spend the winter in the burrow chamber and emerge as adult the following summer.

What a creepy manner of death! It reminds me of the poor human victims of the horrifying, xenomorphic aliens in the movie series of that name. But alas, I am likely being a little too emotional.

The natural world can be harsh, of this we are all well aware. The 19th century practitioners of natural theology found predation and parasitism perplexing. How could a compassionate Creator allow such cold-blooded, merciless death to exist in nature they debated?

It became the lot of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to explain. Driven by natural selection (and much more, we now know), organisms diversify over time to fill, what seems to be, every imaginable ecological niche. Nature is not biased toward unkindness any more than She is geared toward benevolence. Perhaps Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm summarized it most simply. Said he, life will find a way.

Photo Credits:

cicada killer wasp                Alejandro Santilana at commonswikimedia.org

annual cicada                     Insect Unlimited U. of Texas@commonswikimedia.org         

cicada killer with cicada          Judy Gallagher at commonswikimedia.org

















47. Hoosiers, Say Hello to Your New Neighbor!

A few years ago, I was doing some volunteer work in the Department of Biology at Indiana State University. My job entailed preparation of mammal museum specimens. So it was that a couple of road-killed armadillos came my way. I had dealt with their preparation before and, in all honesty, I looked forward to working on these two without eagerness. Preparing an armadillo specimen is a little too much like work. Their name means “little armored one”, which might give insight into my lack of enthusiasm.

I was however intrigued by the locations where they were collected. These were not, as you might expect, from Texas or Alabama but from right here in Indiana. They were killed on roads in the southern part of the state near the Ohio River. Back then I was unaware that armadillos even occurred in the state. Not surprising since, at that time, only three specimens of Dasypus novemcinctus had been referred to ISU. But now, just a few short years later, there are over 80 records of these unique little mammals from around the state. They’ve even made it to Porter County way up on Lake Michigan.

Armadillos are native to South America. In fact, on that continent, there are something like twenty different species of such animals. They vary in size. The smallest is the six-inch-long pink fairy armadillo. These little fellows are found in Argentina.


At the other extreme is the giant armadillo which reaches a length of three feet and weighs over seventy pounds. This species has a wide range and is found in several South American countries including Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru.

The nine-banded armadillo is intermediate in size between these two. Its length and weight are comparable to a cat or small dog. Surprisingly enough, there was another armadillo that lived in Indiana long, long ago. Known as the beautiful armadillo, this species was much larger than its nine-banded cousin with a length of around four feet and a weight of forty pounds or so. The beautiful armadillo became extinct several thousand years ago.

So why are we finding armadillos in Indiana now? The simplest answer is that animals, as their population increases, instinctively seek to disperse into suitable new habitats. This reduces competition within the population, lessens inbreeding, and allows them to colonize new areas.

The nine-banded armadillo didn’t make it to the United States until the late 1800’s. First appearing in Texas, they then gradually invaded new territory to the east. By 1940 they were seen in Alabama. Prior to that, they had jumped to Florida courtesy of human release. By the 1950’s they had spread throughout that state.

Here in Indiana, we’ve recently seen our own examples of the tendency for young animals to venture afar as they seek new territory. In 2003, a young gray wolf was found dead in the northern part of the state. This species was extirpated from Indiana by 1908. The 2003 animal was later determined to have come from Wisconsin.

As a viable population, the mountain lion was gone from Indiana by the late 1800’s. But, in 2009 and 2010, confirmed sightings of a mountain lion were made in Clay and Greene County respectively. In 2011, a male mountain lion was killed on a roadway in Connecticut. Evidence pinpointed the origin of this animal as the Black Hills of South Dakota, 1500 miles away.

A 2004 article in the Bloomington Herald Times recounts the journey of a bobcat radio-collared in Greene County. The animal ended up injured on a road in Michigan, 294 miles away. So, as you can see, animals can be amazingly long-distance travelers.

How far will armadillos expand their range? According to the website Armadillo Online, cold winter temperatures and annual rainfall (at least 15 in./year needed) are major factors limiting distribution. The website features a 1995 map of the potential range expansion for the nine-banded armadillo. Note that Porter County, Indiana is already farther north than then predicted.

I have yet to see an armadillo meandering through my rural Indiana property. I scan each morning with hope, but so far without reward. But I also must consider the possibility that a new guest might be less welcome than I imagine. Armadillos are diggers and burrowers; not sure what Anne would think should one turn its attention to her diligently tended flower beds. But I can’t help myself, I just find them fascinating.

So, for the time being, I must be content with the occasional armadillo encounter while wintering on the Nature Coast of western Florida. Although primarily nocturnal, I do see them there during the day. Invariably they are fixated on industriously nosing their way through the surface litter. A keen sense of smell is their major asset in the search for food. Thus engaged, one can quietly walk right up to them. Armadillos have tiny, peg-like teeth so most of their diet consists of small animals such as beetles, caterpillars, ants, spiders, and centipedes. Fruits such as wild grape are sometimes eaten as well as certain soil fungi. They wouldn’t be fussy about consuming a small vertebrate, such as a frog, or snacking on bird eggs if they were to encounter them.

One aspect of armadillo biology that really puzzles me is their reproductive physiology. The zygote, or fertilized egg, undergoes fission to form four identical cells. This is not unusual. That’s the way our early embryological development begins too. But, in armadillos, each of these four cells then goes on to independently develop into a fetus. Thereafter (about four months) the female gives birth to four identical quadruplets, clones of each other in other words. Apparently female nine-banded armadillos do this every time.

Biologically this doesn’t seem like a good idea. Having offspring which are genetically different from each other is the normal pattern. Such variation bestows adaptability for animals, increasing the odds that at least some can cope with and survive varying environmental conditions.

But hold on! Recent research suggests that the quads are not as identical as they may appear. Just as in human identical twins, some slight differences do occur. Preliminary research indicates such dissimilarities are due to developmental variations regarding which genes are activated. Perhaps armadillo youngsters aren’t “rubber-stamped” look-alikes as we have thought. Stay tuned.

Unfortunately, your best chance of seeing an armadillo here in southwestern Indiana is as a roadkill. A couple of factors make this likely. Being nocturnal can put them on roadways at night when they are difficult to spot. Armadillos also have a curious reaction to being frightened; they tend to leap upward. You can see examples of this on YouTube (armadillo jump – YouTube).

In the wild, this alarmed leap might momentarily startle a predator, such as a coyote or bobcat, allowing the armadillo to run for it. However, it is an extremely poor strategy when confronted by an automobile. Such a jump practically ensures that they are going to be hit by the front or the undercarriage of the vehicle. Sometimes behaviors that are useful in nature don’t transfer well to the human-dominated world.

So, be on the lookout. It looks like armadillos are here to stay for awhile. And what an intriguing little creature they are. Ever expanding their range, armadillos crossed the Panamanian Land Bridge and entered North America some three million years ago. Surely such an ancient history is worthy of some degree of respect.

People are often prone to ask, “What good is it”, when discussion of some particular animal arises. Nine-banded armadillos do have certain practical values. The insects they eat may be harmful to humans in one way or another. People have, and do, use them as a food source. Armadillos are also used for medical research purposes. Scientists may use them to learn more about the genetics and embryology of multiple births and twinning. Nine-banded armadillos, like humans, may also carry the bacterium responsible for leprosy.  Thus, they serve as source of research data on the effects and treatment of this disease.

But my belief is that the “what good” question is a poor one. Each organism plays some role within its ecosystem, though we may not yet fully understand this function. Each species is a unique conception, the result of adaptation and endurance over immense lengths of time. Being a product of the Creation, seems reason enough to give them space, allow them to do what they do, to direct admiration toward their uniqueness and survival skills. Each such species should remind us that we live in a world of wonder. We are surrounded by an incredibly fascinating richness of life here on our only home. Here on this, our Pale Blue Dot.

Photo Credits:

Heading photo by the author.

Pink fairy armadillo by: Cliff at commons.wikimedia.org (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Range map at: Armadillo Expansion (armadillo-online.org)

Armadillo with litter: Armadillos: Identical Quadruplets Every Time (carnegiemnh.org)

Additional Information:

DNR: Fish & Wildlife: Armadillo (in.gov)

Armadillo Online! (armadillo-online.org)


46. Every Species a Work of Art: A Contemplation of Planet Earth’s Biodiversity

Look closely at nature. Every species is a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived.

Edward O. Wilson

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who gave us our understanding of the laws governing planetary motions, had this to say about the stunning variety of life on our planet. The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great . . . that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment. I couldn’t agree more. It has been my good fortune to spend countless hours in pursuit of this nourishment.

I’ve done so for over sixty years. And I admit that sometimes I find myself guilty of taking Earth’s rich biodiversity for granted. At times I need an event, a sighting, an experience, to bring me back to an awareness of just how amazing and varied the living world which surrounds us really is.

We humans must be careful. Our passion for the time-consuming overuse of social media, our need to be constantly entertained, and the anxiety-producing pressures of the modern world can be distracting. They can easily cause us to forget that we live in a world of infinite beauty, spectacular variety, and abundant mystery.

The famous naturalist and explorer Alfred Wallace (1823-1913) once questioned whether we humans were really fulfilling the purpose of our existence when so many of the wonders and beauties of the creation remain unnoticed around us. I’ve wondered that myself but, of course, as a biologist I am biased. But I recently had a realization. It was the sudden recognition that, of late, I had lazily been neglecting the astounding variety, abundance, and fascination of the tens of thousands of species of animals without a backbone (the invertebrates) which live in our oceans.

Such animals outnumber the vertebrates by something like 24:1. Is it their size which causes me to often overlook them? Granted, some, like the giant squid, are huge (> 60 ft.). But, on average they are only around two inches in length. Or perhaps it is a combination of small size, secretive habits, and strange habitats which cause me to forget what a diverse and interesting group such animals represent. Maybe I’m just prejudiced by my long infatuation with reptiles, birds, and mammals? Whatever the reason, one should be impressed by the fact that about 99% of all the animals in the world are invertebrates. The insects alone make up 80% of all the world’s animal species. Talk about unappreciated!

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit one of the world’s best marine museums, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here I was prompted to remember that there are indeed wonders and beauties of the creation to be found. Upon this, our little island in the cosmic sea, reside a host of creatures mostly unseen, easily overlooked, and mostly unacknowledged. These are the animals without backbones which dwell in the world’s oceans.

Gazing into one of the aquarium tanks, I considered the strangeness of the sea anemones. In these photos, there are at least five different species. In the world’s oceans, there are over 1,000 different kinds. For a mobile species like us, how odd it seems to be non-motile, stuck in one place. Equally curious would be having a body with no head, no back, no front, no rear. Sea anemones have radial symmetry. I wonder what that would feel like?

Their central mouth is surrounded by a cluster of tentacles. These bear stinging cells which paralyze their prey and afterwards draw the victim into a hollow body where digestion occurs. No stomach, no intestine; anything inedible is ejected via the mouth. But still, they are lovely. In their varying colors, swaying with the ocean currents, they do bear a resemblance to flowers. Thus, the appellation: anemone.

The clown fishes which brazenly swim among the anemone’s tentacles represent an interesting ecological relationship known as mutualism. In this type of symbiosis, both animals receive benefit from their association. The fishes, while shielded from being stung by a thick coating of mucus, receive protection from predators. The anemone benefits from the clown fishes’ wastes which fertilize the algae growing symbiotically inside the anemones (a whole other fascinating story of mutualism). Clown fishes may also remove parasites from the anemone or lure prey within reach of the anemone’s tentacles.

Anemones are often found attached to a foundation of coral. A whole world of life can be centered upon a coral reef. Corals (>6000 species) are animals too. Their bodies resemble tiny sea anemones but are noted for their ability to secrete a protective, limestone, exoskeleton.  Some, such as brain corals and the mushroom coral are solitary and live in their own small, isolated colonies.

Others join forces, and over the millennia grow into the massive bulwarks that we recognize as coral reefs. These, with their many cavities, ledges, and fissures provide housing for a multitude of other animals.

Aside from the spectacular fish species that inhabit coral reefs, there is a plethora of invertebrate animals associated with them, or swimming in the seas around them. There are sea squirts, spoon worms, diatoms, comb jellies, polychaeta worms, brachiopods, and bryozoans. Joining these are siphonophores, isopods, and amphipods. Added to the biodiverse mix are the various kinds of phytoplankton and zooplankton.

As I encountered the names of these groups, one after another, it occurred to me that I knew very little about the lifestyles, ecological relationships, or environmental importance of these groups. It was a humbling reminder that even years of specialized study leaves one to savor only a tiny wedge from the immense pie that is life on Earth.

Closely related to the anemones and corals are the jellyfishes. These creatures (>2000 species) have the same radial symmetry, simplicity of body form, and lack of organ systems.  But they can move. The mesmerizing pulsating of their “bells” forces out the water within, a practical application of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Their tentacles also bear stinging nematocyst cells. Some, like the infamous box jellyfish, inject toxins capable of killing a human.

Others are less toxic. I once inadvertently swam into the remnants of a jellyfish that had been pounded to smithereens by the surf. I detected the sudden presence of its disembodied stinging cells as numerous, widely dispersed, tiny, bee-like irritations over my shoulders and chest.

Jellyfishes have been swimming the world’s oceans for an exceedingly long time. Their fossil history goes back at least 600,000,000 years. Some are tiny (<1mm), some are huge (> 5 ft. in diameter), all deserve admiration for their skill in being long-term voyagers in the sea of life.

If you have beachcombed for shells, you have likely recognized that there is a huge variety of clams in the world. But that’s just one group (bivalves) within a larger group (mollusks). There are around 50,000 species of mollusks in the oceans. Aside from clams, there are thousands of species of gastropods (snails, conchs, sea slugs, abalones, nudibranchs, sea hares), tooth shells, and chitons that live in the ocean. The mollusks represent yet one more group that is tremendously abundant, highly varied in form, and yet often entirely forgotten by most of us.

And let’s not forget that among the mollusks we also find the cuttlefishes, octopuses, and squids. Over 1,000 different species of these strange creatures swim the oceans of the world.

This is a group of animals that particularly fascinates me. This allure began when I was a boy. In 1954 Walt Disney produced a movie based upon the Jules Verne book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  What a tale of adventure that was for an eight-year-old boy! One of the scenes which enthralled me, has stayed with the most, was the attack upon the submarine Nautilus by a giant squid. I can’t recall being previously aware that such a creature really existed.

Of course, the movie did take some liberties with the size and abilities of the giant squid. Nevertheless, I learned that this animal (of which there are several species) was real and is, in fact, considered the largest invertebrate animal in the world. The giant squid can be over 40 ft. long (mostly tentacle length). The closely related colossal squid is bulkier with a record weight of over half a ton.

Adult giant squids are abyssal creatures, meaning they live at great depths in the ocean (> 1000 ft.). As a result, they are seldom encountered, and very little is known about their habits. Scientists do know that sperm whales prey upon giant squids. The horny beaks of the squid have been found in the whale’s stomachs. Sperm whales are known to dive over 5,000 ft. beneath the surface of the ocean. Quite possibly, the giant squids go down that far too.


As an undergrad, my comparative anatomy professor related a story he had heard about a sperm whale taken by whalers. It seems the whale had a giant squid sucker scar on its skin that was a foot in diameter. There are two rows of suckers on each squid tentacle. Thus, each tentacle would have had to have been close to three feet in diameter. How huge would such a squid have to have been? Could a squid of such monstrous size be lurking in the ocean depths? Or did the sucker scar merely stretch, like a distorted tattoo, as the whale grew? The mystery remains.

The octopuses also intrigue me greatly. Zoologists consider them to be the most intelligent of all invertebrates. Cuttlefishes and squids also have large brain to body size ratios, but octopuses are the star pupils. Their brains are said to contain as many neurons as a mouse’s brain.

I once saw a video depicting the interaction of two octopuses. One had learned how to remove the plug from a submerged bottle, crawl inside, and eat a shrimp contained within the bottle. A second octopus had tried but not yet mastered the trick needed to get inside the bottle.

The two were placed in an aquarium but separated by a glass partition. The well-versed octopus was presented another bottle and promptly opened it and secured the shrimp. Now the second, less adept octopus was again presented a stoppered bottle containing a shrimp. After having observed its neighbor use the required technique it, without hesitation, pulled the plug, slithered into the bottle, and ate the shrimp. This action appeared to be a clear case of learning behavior, a most complex type of neural activity. Here is a similar act of intelligence: Octopus Opening a Jar to Get Dinner! – YouTube

I must admit that, after learning of the extreme intelligence of octopuses and watching Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, I doubt I will ever be able to look at them as a potential food item again.

I hope this brief tour of the world of marine invertebrates has given you greater appreciation for the abundant and fascinating biodiversity of this often-ignored group. Their body forms, their ways of life, the many mysteries regarding their ecology, offer endless opportunities for us to be amazed. They remind us that we live on a planet of immense spectacle and allure. By considering them, we are encouraged to follow Wallace’s prompt and perhaps do a better job of noticing the wonders and beauties of the creation. If only we take the time to do so.


Photo Credits:

Cuttlefish by Hans Hillewaert at commons.wikimedia.org (distributed by a CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

Octopus by Revital Salomon at commons.wikimedia.org (distributed by a CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

Squid by Rhododendrites at commons.wikimedia.org (distributed by a CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

Squid/human size comparison by Citron at commons.wikimedia.org (distributed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 license)

All other images by the author.


45. Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: The Northern Elephant Seal

For the animal shall not be measured by man . . .  They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

 Henry Beston

The Outermost House:

A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

As a zoologist, I have had a life-long fascination with the animal world. During childhood, this captivation manifested itself as an insatiable desire to roam the fields and forests of rural Sullivan County in search of subjects for study. Later as an adult, my search became more academic, more specific, more detailed as I studied disciplines such as entomology, ichthyology, herpetology, ornithology, and mammalogy. And still, after decades of attention to the animal kingdom, I often find myself looking at some new, previously unfamiliar species with stunned fascination. Such was the case when I recently encountered the marine mammal known as the northern elephant seal.

In the book of Psalms, David reflects that he has been “fearfully and wonderfully made.” In this case fearfully does not mean in terror or dread. Rather it implies great respect and reverence. Likewise, wonderful does not suggest simple delight but uniqueness or rareness.  So too, this verse may represent the exceptionality and matchlessness of this strange denizen of the sea and seashore.

The beach at Piedras Blancas in coastal California was populated, on the day of my visit, by hundreds of elephant seals. The big bulls were far out to sea so it was females, juvenile males, and young of the year who populated the dark sands. May was molting time for this group and the coats of many resembled a tattered old jacket that should have been discarded long ago. Occasionally a couple of young bulls would begin to feel their oats and a brief barking, shoving, sparring match would ensue. These were but a preview of the fierce, blood-drawing contests in which the big bulls would engage when they returned in late fall. Only the biggest, strongest males could hope to achieve the rank of beach master and be rewarded with the assembling of a harem of 20 to 50 females.

Using their forelimbs, there was much flipping of sand upon the backs among the beached seals. This action gave the appearance of small sand geysers erupting sporadically within the colony. Compared to the ocean depths to which these animals may dive, the beach was a hothouse. The coating of sand upon their bodies prevented overheating. I found it interesting that though the main activity was simply snoozing, the elephant seals drew a significant crowd of human observers. The parking area near the beach was large and full. Dozens of people patrolled the walkway overlooking the beach. Many, including myself, stood in rapt wonderment at the spectacle before them. And yet, the show was mostly hundreds of big, sleeping mammals. Why were people so entranced by these representatives of one of Beston’s so-called other nations?

Perhaps, I thought, one reason might be that the elephant seals were so monumentally different from us. Certainly their size was worth a second look. The average American, human male weighs about 198 pounds. Male northern elephant seals can weigh 5,000 pounds. The more petite female seals check in at a svelte 1,000 pounds or so. Even the pups are large and weigh around 60 pounds at birth. By the time they are weaned they have gained nearly 300 pounds.

Because of their lifestyle, the outward appearance of elephant seals must be vastly different than their human observers. However, beneath the skin the seals bear strong resemblance to us. After all, we share nearly 80 percent of our DNA sequences. Their skeletal structure is much like ours. They give birth to live young, nourish them with mother’s milk, and have hair. There is a mammal-ness underlying their strangely different external form. Could this be a source of our apparent fascination? Do the folks who stand mesmerized, staring at the seals do so because they realize these animals are somewhat like us after all?

But we can’t deny their differences either; maybe this is why we are fascinated. Hands have been replaced by paddles, feet by flippers. The body itself is fusiform (streamlined) for speeding through the ocean waters in which they spend the majority of their lives. On the beach, they have an ungainly, lunging, worm-like locomotion; but once in the water, they are transformed into massive, agile torpedoes. Elephant seals can hold their breath for over twenty minutes; the average human for 90 seconds. When pups are weaned after three months, they can already dive deeper and stay down longer than adult harbor seals or sea lions.

Yes, there are many reasons to stand mesmerized as one looks down upon an elephant seal rookery. But, in the end, I believe the attention they foster among us two-legged, terrestrial mammals lies in what we cannot see. It is their behavior when at sea that boggles the mind.

For example adult males leave the rookery beach, usually in March, and begin a monumental swim from coastal, central California. Heading northward and somewhat hugging the coastline, they eventually arrive in waters off of Alaska over 2,000 miles away. The elephant seals from Piedras Blancas will thus migrate some 5,000 miles during the year. Females head more westerly and northerly and range out as far as 3,000 miles. Both sexes are solitary when at sea. There is no partner to help find the way back.

The Pacific, even just the eastern portion, is a big ocean. These are long swims! California has over 800 miles of shoreline. How do they find their way back to their rookery beach? Research has shed light on this question. Apparently they sometimes use landmarks visible when they surface ala “oh, there’s Big Sur just off the port side”. But during dives they spiral downward in a way that could easily disorient them.  They may also be far out to sea where landmarks are not available. Thus scientists think they may also be using the earth’s geomagnetic field as do many birds. Others research has suggested that they have a mental map of their migration route and follow this course yearly. But how does an animal form a “mental map” in a vast, liquid environment without landmarks? We may never totally understand how they are accomplishing their amazing navigational feats.

Northern elephant seals fast while on their home beach and may lose forty percent of their body weight. When they go to sea they travel and forage for food twenty-four hours per day. They occasionally drift and sleep briefly on their way up from a dive. The prey of elephant seals includes fish, squid, skates, rays, hagfishes, and octopuses which are taken with a grab and swallow technique.

In order to reach such prey, the elephant seals make dives of 500 to 3,000 feet depth. Males often feed from the ocean bottom while females prey upon their food in the open ocean. The record dive depth for a northern elephant seal is 5,788 feet. This is thought to be deeper than the maximum depth achieved by nuclear submarines with their reinforced, steel hulls. How does an animal made of soft tissues withstand the pressure at these depths? This is an astounding capability for a living creature. The deepest free dive for a human, by the way, is less than a thousand feet.

And there is also this to consider. The water into which they dive is really, really cold. At 3,000 feet it is about 40F. Humans finding themselves submerged in water this temperature face exhaustion or unconsciousness within a half hour. The seal’s secret? Elephant seals are protected by a blanket of fat (blubber) the thickness of a loaf of bread. In times past, this was also a liability because it led to their being hunted nearly to extinction by human, in the same manner as whales. Though today protected from hunting, their blubbery insulation is still the target of a very interesting predator – the cookie cutter shark. These small sharks locate the seals, bite into their skin/blubber, and with a spinning motion pull out a nice plug of fat for their meal. Observing the elephant seals on the beach at Piedras Blancas, it was common to see their skin marred by the scars of a cookie cutter shark bite. More serious threats to the elephant seals are killer whales and great white sharks. Occasionally one will see a seal bearing a large shark bite mark; the sign of a narrow escape from death.

I also find myself astounded by elephant seal predatory behavior because of the way light penetrates the sea water. Below about 600 feet depth, there is not enough light for phytoplankton to carry out photosynthesis. Below 3,000 feet there is no light; the sea is as dark as a cave. And yet they dive to these depths and beyond. Elephant seals have highly light-sensitive eyes, said to be ten times as receptive as ours. This allows them to see any dim, bioluminescent glow given off by their prey even in the darkest depths. When eyesight isn’t an option, they can use their vibrissae (whiskers) to sense the vibrations in the water produced by the movements of their prey. During dives and surfacing, the vibrissae are held back against the face. At depths, while hunting, they are fanned out to better detect any movement of the water molecules. How is this possible? Could I grow my beard and, with closed eyes, hope to detect the passing of a swallow using only the hair of my face? Even though I have learned these research-derived facts about elephant seals, their behavior still seems miraculous. Finding food in the pitch black ocean depths seems an unintelligible, mystical power to me. The cold, the blackness, the vast volume of water to be searched; how amazing their adaptations and survival skills are.

Female elephant seals baffle me by their apparent sense of time. They range hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles out to sea. Yet they have some inner “clock” that tells them it is time to return to their rookery beach. They are already pregnant, having mated several months ago. Upon arrival back at the rookery beach, they will all give birth within a few days. What a precise example of time-management this is. How do they know? I am left to wonder.

And then there are the young and their remarkable instincts. They are born, then nursed by their mother for a few weeks. Eventually she simply abandons them. The pups gather in groups (pods) which are usually higher up on the beach where they can avoid the huge, battling bulls. Finally instinct drives them to the sea where they begin to develop their ability to hold their breath, control blood distribution to their internal organs (aka the dive reflex), strengthen their muscles, and find food. And then one day, one by one, they go to sea. They will not return to the beach for several months. It is easy to say, “oh this is all just instinctive behavior.” But I don’t know what that means. What does an instinct look like at the molecular level, the neurological level? It is yet another mystery I must ponder.

Yes, there is plenty to hold one captivated while gazing upon these massive, marine mammals lounging there upon the sands of Piedras Blancas. As I turned to go, more of Henry Beston’s observations of the animal kingdom came to mind. This time I associated them with the elephant seal. Said he: In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.






44. Ring-necked Snakes & Red-spotted Newts – Oh My!

 . . . whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul . . .                                           Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I just turned 75 a few weeks ago. Not s­ure I like the sound of that. A well-known proverb suggests that we should not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many. I try to keep this in mind when I begin to feel a little too sorry for myself. In spite of aching joints, inflexibility, an alarming increase in girth, and the dozen other glitches associated with aging; I prompt myself to recall that I have, after all, gotten to start another orbit around our nearest star.

There is another, even better way in which I seek solace when the burden of gloominess threatens to engulf me. Through some miracle of good fortune or good planning (thanks to an astute spouse), I now find myself in possession of fifty acres of densely forested land. I say possession but that seems a presumptuous way to put it. The bedrock beneath my third of a homestead is composed of sediments laid down during the Pennsylvanian Period. This makes such stone about 300 million years old. I’ve “owned” it for 0.00000004 (four hundred-millionths) of that time; not long enough to really talk about possessing anything I’d say. But for now, I can pretend it is mine and wander freely over it. Such roving is a fine way to put aside thoughts of infirmities both real and imagined, feelings of world-weariness, worry. Traipsing through the woods makes for an easy transition into mindfulness, gratefulness, blissfulness. Negative emotions and musings seem to drift away when I engage in heedful contact with the natural world. I bet it could do the same for you.

Walking today, I passed a big chunk of Busseron sandstone lying on the surface. It must have weighed four or five tons at least. The face of the stone was imprinted with fossil crinoids. Around here folks call them “Indian beads”. Crinoids are relatives of starfish and sea anemones and live only in marine waters. And so I am reminded that the ground I walk upon was once covered by the shallow waters of a vast inland arm of the sea. Many of the denizens of this past water world would be familiar to me. Just as today, the seas were inhabited by corals, clams, squids, sharks and bony fishes. Some groups which flourished during that time, such as the clam-like brachiopods, have declined in diversity. Others, like trilobites and fusulinids, are gone entirely and are now known only from their fossil remains.

At other times during the Carboniferous Age, the land here was clothed in dense forests of cycads, tree ferns, giant horsetails, massive club mosses, and conifer-like Cordaites. I try to imagine, should someone grant me the temporary use of their time machine, how strange it would feel to rove this ancient world. Nary an oak, hickory, or other flowering plant would there be to encounter. Likewise this world was yet without frogs, birds or mammals. It was a realm so primordial that millions of more years must elapse before even the dinosaurs would make their way onto the stage. How eerily quiet it must have been! Granted, insects were already well established and included the ancestors of grasshoppers and crickets. They must have added their mixed choruses of clicks, buzzes, and chirps. Perhaps I would have heard the faint rasping of innumerable tiny legs as spiders, millipedes, and centipedes scuttled over the surface. They arrived plenty early in earth’s geologic history. But still, my mind struggles to imagine a world without bird song, the trill of courting frogs, or the territorial bugling of an elk.

The remains of these quiet forests eventually became the coal beds which rest beneath the surface here. Today the land I have strolled upon shows evidence of massive disturbance. Removal of this coal some seventy years ago has left my land with a topography that resembles a Brobdingnagian plowed field. Ridge after parallel ridge and their intervening valleys march across the landscape. In the zeal to reach the valuable coal beneath me, the land was turned upside down. Rich humus and soil, once on the surface, came to be covered by many feet of fractured sandstone and shale rendered into pieces by explosive ammonium nitrate. Even after all these decades, this land would make a fine rock farm. But, lest you picture a terrain despoiled and desolate, consider this.

Nature can heal itself. With a little help from us, She can do it even faster. Mined long before today’s more enlightened restoration laws were enacted, my land was once a pitiful, barren moon-scape of shattered overburden. Little was done to help this land recover save for the scattered planting of trees over its surface. And now today, lo and behold, I walk through a forest. White oak, yellow poplar, sycamore, redbud and dogwood; all are here. Interspersed among them are white pines of admirable size.

When the land was excavated, every resident chipmunk, fox squirrel, white-tailed deer, and pileated woodpecker was evicted. Gone was each gray tree frog, morel, fern, and red-backed salamander. No white-footed mice scurried through leaf litter. No barred owl sat in stealthy watchfulness of their rodent shenanigans. Not a spring beauty, toothwort, or mayapple remained to greet the spring. Now, all of these have reappeared. Granted some unpleasant guests have hitchhiked in too. I wage a constant battle against invasive autumn olive, bush honeysuckle, and garlic mustard. But overall, like the reincarnation of a departed ancestor, the despoiled ground has given rise to a good representation of what a Midwestern mixed forest should be.

And the woodland’s inhabitants are back too! My walks are enlivened by the calls of barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, and pileated woodpeckers. Prothonotary warblers, Carolina wrens, and wood thrushes enthusiastically announce their residence here. Wild turkeys gobble, white-tailed deer stealthily patrol the trails, gray squirrels bark, and raccoons leave their little hand-like prints in the muddy lake margins. They’ve all returned! It really is quite wonderful and I never know for sure what a day’s hike might have to offer.

But there are two animals which seem, in my mind, particularly emblematic of the forest’s rebirth. Though somewhat common in my woodland, they exist unseen by all but the most diligent searchers. I nominate the ring-necked snake and the red-spotted (Eastern) newt as symbols of Nature’s amazing ability to recuperate from the savage blows we bestow upon Her.

What a handsome little creature is the ring-necked snake.  Small by serpent standards, they average around ten inches in total length. Their dorsal coloration is a dark, blackish gray with a bright yellow ring around their neck. While their back is somberly colored, much like the pieces of shale under which I often find them, their bellies are a flamboyant yellow or orange.

Because of their small size and secretive habits, many people have never seen a ring-necked snake. This is in spite of the fact that they may be quite common in certain areas. In searching for these snakes, I often find red-backed salamanders furtively lurking under flat stones too. These amphibians are preyed upon by ring-necked snakes. Perhaps this is why the little ring-necks seem to be one of the more common snakes inhabiting my woodlands.

And here is one more reason I consider this little creature a fascinating find during one of my forest jaunts. Recent research has demonstrated that ring-necked snakes are venomous. While docile and harmless to humans, the secretions of their Duvernoy’s glands* are lethal to their smaller amphibian and reptilian prey**. If you aren’t familiar with snakes, it might also surprise you to learn that the ring-necked snake’s fangs are located not at the front of the mouth, but at the back. The enlarged rear-fang of a ring-necked snake is indicated in the accompanying photo (from O’Donnell et. al.)***

This winter these little jewels of the serpent world will den below the frost line. Come next spring, they will be emerging at about the same time I’ll be combing the forest for morels. Even while focused upon the fungi, you can bet I won’t be able to resist turning the occasional stone in hope of reacquainting myself with this petite emblem of Nature’s ability to persevere.

Looking for the red-spotted newt during by woodland ramblings requires a different strategy. Not on the rock-strewn slopes must I search. Instead, it is the small lakes that fill some of the valleys I must investigate. Adult red-spotted newts are aquatic salamanders. Larval newts have gills just as other salamanders and frogs do. But as adults they have lungs. If I lie very quietly at the edge of one of the small ponds on my land, I may be rewarded by seeing a newt lazily float to the surface for a tiny breath of air. If I give myself away, it will very quickly make a U-turn and, with undulations of its oar-like tail, make a crash dive toward the bottom. Introducing oneself to a newt requires patience.

What a fascinating life cycle this little vertebrate exhibits. Hatched from an egg deposited in the water, the little gilled larvae spends two or three weeks in this aquatic stage. It then transforms into a life-stage known as a red eft. In this form, the eft takes to the forest where it lurks beneath fallen logs and feeds on tiny terrestrial invertebrates such as springtails and mites. After three years or so of life on land, the eft returns to the water, further transforms and takes up residence as the adult red-spotted newt more familiar to us.

Like the ring-necked snake, the eft harbors a secret. This time a defensive one. Red eft skin secretes a toxin known as tetrodotoxin. This compound is also present in the skin of adults though in lower concentration. Tetrodotoxin is one of the most deadly neurotoxins known. You might be familiar with it as the toxic ingredient in fugu, the Japanese puffer fish delicacy. Tetrodotoxin is found in the bite of the potentially deadly Pacific blue-ringed octopus as well. Who would have thought that our little Hoosier-dwelling newt had anything in common with two of the most notoriously venomous animals in the world?

And so these are some peeks into one of my favorite emotional coping mechanisms. When beleaguered by the stresses of modern life, when besieged by the imperfections of aging, when I need a little nudge to remember that I have been blessed with a life full of learning and adventure: to my forest retreat I must go. Walking quietly or just sitting in meditation, I am immersed in a world of incredible beauty and biocomplexity. There are trees needing identification, rocks to examine, life cycles to be considered, a million questions to be asked. How could there be time for brooding over difficulties, real or imagined?


Duvernoy’s gland – Wikipedia

**Ryan P. O’Donnell, Kevin Staniland, Robert T. Mason. 2007. Experimental evidence that oral secretions of northwestern ring-necked snakes (Diadophis punctatus occidentalis) are toxic to their prey.  Toxicon. (810-815).

*** Among venomous snakes some have fixed, hollow fangs in the front of their mouths. Examples would be cobras and kraits. Others have hollow, front fangs which fold back when not in use. Rattlesnakes and true vipers (e.g. the Gaboon Viper) are examples. Rear-fanged snakes are known as opisthoglyphs. Opistho comes from the Greek word meaning behind. A glyph is an incised line refers to the grooved (rather than hollow) nature of opisthoglyphs fangs.

Photo Credits:

ring-necked snake close-up courtesy of www.estuarypartnership.org

ring-necked snake by Linh Phu @ dnr.maryland.gov

ring-necked snake skull from O’Donnell et. al. 2007

red-spotted newt by Brian Gratwicke at https//:creativecommons.orglicensesby2.0.jpg










43. Sharing the Water with Sharks

If we are fortunate, our lives will be blessed by at least a few experiences which are transcendent. These occurrences surpass all others in the emotions they evoke, the curiosity they inspire, or their ability to remind us just how remarkable a human existence can sometimes be. These are encounters which long reside in our memories. They arise, frequently unbidden, to remind us that we live in a world of wonder. They prompt us to recall that the human experience is often awe-inspiring. I have been fortunate indeed. Now in the autumn of my life, providence has graced me with a host of such memories. Here is one I would share with you.

As a rural youngster my world was small. But, I sometimes heard stories proposing that tropical paradises existed somewhere far away. Most often it was said that these were islands located in the remote reaches of the Pacific Ocean. The tales proclaimed that such places were of great natural beauty and blissful solitude. As a young man of 28, I found that these stories were true.

I had come to learn that lying off the northeastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia was a pair of islands. Pulau Perhentian Kecil (little) and Pulau Perhentian Besar (big) rested 12 miles offshore of the mainland, their beaches languidly caressed by the tepid waters of the South China Sea.  I had also been told that the larger of the two islands was uninhabited and fringed by pristine coral reefs of rich biodiversity and stunning beauty. Snorkel over an unspoiled coral reef? Never had I ever. Living in Malaysia at that time, this was an opportunity that demanded a commitment.

My wife Anne, daughter Michelle (then an 8 year-old), and I loaded our venerable Mitsubishi Colt with water, rice, canned fish, and fruit enough for a few days and headed for the little town of Kuala Besut, 330 miles to the northeast. We drove westward across the Malay Peninsula the first day and spent an evening in the ocean-side town of Kuantan. The ensuing drive up the east coast revealed a landscape totally different than the western side of Malaysia where we lived. This was in 1974 and at that time the east coast’s seasonal monsoon had caused development to lag far behind that on the western side of the peninsula’s mountainous spine. We drove for miles along beautiful, sandy beaches that were totally undeveloped. A Malay kampong (village) devoted to a fishing economy occasionally appeared through the windshield. Otherwise our drive was without evidence that humans actually inhabited this beautiful coast.

Arriving in Kuala Besut, we connected with a few other Peace Corps friends who were going out to Pulau Perhentian with us. Combining our supplies and making a quick inventory to ensure we had all we needed, we discussed the issue of just how we were going to get out to the island. It seemed to hover tantalizingly close. Though shrouded by a blue haze imparted by its distance, the rainforest-covered island loomed on the western horizon, its lurking mysteries tugging at us like a potent magnet.

We needed a boat obviously. But this was long ago. No ferry plied the steel blue waters lying between the small fishing village and our island destination. There were no trendy outfitters where one might purchase any camping equipment known to man. Kuala Besut was devoid of even a single company devoted to capitalizing upon visiting tourists. But, there were lots of fishing boats. Perhaps we could hire one to take us out to the big island. With that, we began a march along the shoreline where the Malay fisherman had drawn up their vessels. Luck was with us. The third fisherman we queried said yes; he would take us out to Pulau Perhentian and come back and pick us up in three days. The negotiated price (to be paid when he came back for us) was 50 Ringgit (about US$23 at that time).

Into the little wooden boat we piled our supplies and excitedly climbed aboard to begin our adventure. Perhaps, at this point, some of you may be wondering why on earth we would take an 8 year-old child out to an uninhabited island for three days. I can only plead the ignorance of youth; my youth that is! As I have aged, it has become quite apparent to me that people in their 20’s don’t think like people in their 70’s. I suppose this is why 20 year-olds make good soldiers, racing drivers, rock climbers. It simply never occurred to us that anyone could get hurt. None of our group of young adults ever considered the idea that someone might be shark-bitten, suffer a fall, encounter an uncooperative appendix. Focused upon our exploration and blissfully unaware, off we sailed. Oh to be young, impetuous, and unafraid once again.

Our fishing boat was about 40 feet in length with a beam of around 10 feet. A small cabin/wheelhouse stood amidships.  The craft was powered by a single-cylinder, gasoline engine; thus we putt-putted over the rolling sea at a leisurely pace. The journey out to the island was expected to take a little over an hour.

We left Kuala Besut around midday and sailed eastward toward the Perhentians. The typically steamy, tropical weather was wonderfully moderated by the fresh sea-breeze. The light wind wafted over us as we sat near the bow. Scanning the air and water for wildlife, we were suddenly jolted to attention by the appearance of our first shark. A huge fish had unexpectedly rolled to the surface. The broad head gave the front end of the beast the appearance of a large capital “T”. There lolling briefly atop the water, was a great hammerhead shark many feet in length. The distinctive chocolate-brown back broke the water barely a dozen feet from our boat. As suddenly as it had appeared, the shark was gone. We excitedly congratulated each other’s good fortune in seeing such an extraordinary animal. Inwardly each of us reflected upon the possibility that this fellow might have friends swimming the waters closer to our island destination.

The remainder of our voyage was uneventful and finally we entered the channel between the little island on the left and the big island to the south. Pulau Perhentian Kecil had a small Malay fishing village on its leeward shore. As noted, Pulau Perhentian Besar was uninhabited and its mountainous slopes were covered in thick forest. There was a small government rest house somewhere on its southeastern shore but we were told it was seldom used. Thus, it appeared that the island would be ours alone for the next few days.

Our boatmen told us that they would put us ashore on a beach which was beyond the rocky headland lying just ahead of us. In our excited anticipation we chattered away about what an excellent adventure awaited us. We rounded the point and beheld our landing site. With that, the jabbering abruptly stopped. We were all stunned into silence. The vista we observed was a postcard from Eden. It must surely be a mirage, a hallucination, a dream! But no, it was real. I suddenly recognized that I was actually seeing with my own eyes a tropical paradise of the kind I had heard rumored as a child.

Stretched out before us was a broadly U-shaped beach of brilliant sugary-white sand. Along its entire length, the beach was lined by towering coconut palms. The trees arched outward over the beach and offered a shadowy, highlighted edge to the dazzlingly white sand. The water in the small bay formed by the island’s curvature was a magnificent turquoise-blue and its clarity was stunning. I glanced over the side of the boat and could easily see small stones lying on the sandy bottom in nearly 50 feet of water. It was quite simply the most translucent body of water I had ever seen.

Our boat soon nudged the bottom and came to rest. We discussed the particulars of when the fisher-folk would return to get us and bade them goodbye. With that, we gathered our few belongings and waded through the lukewarm water to shore. Thirty yards back from the beach there was a small shelter consisting of a roof set atop four posts. Under this we pitched our canvas tent; a refuge in case of rain. The tent was never used. During the day we were sheltered by the coconut palms and at night we simply slept on light blankets spread upon the sand. We cooked over a campfire and subsisted for the brief three days on a diet consisting primarily of the aforementioned rice and canned fish.

We were sometimes awakened in the wee hours of the night by the metallic sound of tin cans being gently nudged about. Flipping on our flashlights, we found hermit crabs busily working on the remaining scraps of food within the tins we had temporarily cached on the sand. On other evenings we heard a commotion in the palm trees over our beachfront beds. Scanning the palm canopies we saw several flying foxes noisily congregating in the trees. These are the largest bats in the world with a wingspan of three or four feet. Their faces do indeed look more like that of a small dog than the countenance we usually associate with a bat. Being harmless fruit-eaters, we left the bats to their socializing and tucked ourselves back into our bedrolls. The gentle lapping of the waves upon the shoreline near our feet soon lulled us back to sleep.

The rising of the morning sun roused us from our blankets and, as we set about making coffee, we speculated upon what the day’s snorkeling might bring. The fringing reef we wanted to explore lined the east and west sides of our cove. The corals appeared, just below the surface of the crystal-clear water, as a darker smudge upon the white sand of the bottom. At last with great anticipation, we grabbed our masks and snorkels and waded out. As we reached the reef, we found that the water was still only a bit over waist deep. Hardly believing that the coral was so easily reached, I lowered my mask and submerged myself below the surface for a first look.

What I saw astonished me. As a land-locked Hoosier, I had never imagined that such a wondrous natural world could really exist. Granted, I had seen the Jacque Cousteau and National Geographic specials. I knew that coral reefs were amazing repositories of marine life; but that was TV. This was real! This was 3-D! This was in full color! This was alive!

Stretching before me was a multicolored vista of corals. There were rounded forms of solitary corals like Fungia (looking a bit like a mushroom cap) and the aptly named brain coral with its ridged and furrowed cerebral-like form. There were fan-shaped corals, branching corals like Acropora (staghorn), and corals that were soft instead of stony. Underlying all these were the reef-building corals. Their growth over the millennia had produced the limestone bulwark of the reef. Even now the living polyp animals covering the reef surfaces were working away. Their tentacled, tubular bodies were busily converting carbon, calcium, and oxygen into the stony skeletons we recognize as the reef. One might suppose that all this variety existed in a uniform, concrete-like color but this was not so. Scanning the reef, I could see animals of purple, blue, red, yellow, black, and brown. Each color represented a different species of reef organism. Here and there, embedded   in the reef itself, I could see individuals of Tridacna, the giant clam. The reef had literally grown around the larger ones imprisoning them in stone. By periodically opening and closing their shells, they had created a snug space within the reef for themselves. The monstrous clams (the largest ever found weighed over 500 lbs.) lie there with their valves agape filtering water through their mantle cavity in the constant need for freshly oxygenated water and planktonic food.

The sandy bottom was littered with sea cucumbers. Some were smooth-skinned, tarry-black in color and resembled a legless, unsegmented caterpillar. Other kinds were nearly two feet in length with tan, spiny skin. All of them crept about on tiny, suction-creating tube feet as they vacuumed up sand and sorted from it the organic detritus which fed them. Arthropods such as shrimp and lobsters prowled the surface of the coral and probed its many crannies in their search for a meal or a secretive hiding spot.

The fish of the reef represented a whole other world of color. There were strikingly orange-colored clownfish (someday to star in the as yet unimagined role of Nemo). These retreated seductively into their sea anemone homes as they attempted to lure me – just another big fish to them – into the poisonous tentacles of the anemones. There were exquisitely colored butterfly fish, their little beak-like snouts probing the corals for algae and plankton. Parrot fish, with their massive teeth exposed in a perpetual smile, cruised over the coral.

Occasionally they stopped to use these teeth to nip off chunks of coral. In this way, they fed upon the coral polyps and produced as waste a fine sand which drifted to the bottom.

Lurking in the dark recesses of the coral, I would occasionally catch sight of a huge grouper. Mottled in camouflaging colors, they were lying in wait for some hapless piscine prey to swim past. And then of course, there were sharks.

Recalling the huge hammerhead we had seen on the way over to the island, I had entered the water with some trepidation. However as I marveled at the sights of the reef, sharks had been shuffled to the back of my memory. So it was that I was totally unprepared to have a shark swim past directly beneath me as I swam out over a sandy bottom. My response was automatic, or should I say autonomic. It was the old fight or flight response I had learned about in physiology class. My heart rate climbed to about one-twenty, seemingly instantly. I’m sure my pupils dilated, blood sugar increased, and my hair stood on end. The shark was swimming along at a good clip and as I watched it swim away from me my fear subsided. With some embarrassment, I now realized that the fish which at first glance might have been a huge great white was actually a little fellow about three feet long. Such is the innate fear sharks conjure in the human mind I suppose. Other small sharks and a beautiful spotted eagle ray were encountered during our stay on Perhentian, but none generated the alarm caused by that first-ever sighting of a shark so closely sharing my water.

But my favorite shark memory comes from a later dive made on this lovely island. Since Michelle was only eight, she needed some assistance in maintaining the endurance to snorkel for an extended period. Anne and I nudged her along with us on a small Styrofoam float. She could either push this ahead of her or rest upon it if needed. Slowly we all once again snorkeled over the wonderful reef enjoying its breathtaking beauty. The water in which we were swimming was, in this instance, quite shallow; only covering the reef to a depth of about three feet. As we paddled over the corals, I happened to look up into the distance in time to see a form becoming visible a few yards in front of us. Like a specter that might suddenly appear in a dimly lit room, the figure of a shark loomed into view. So perfect was the counter-shading coloration of the shark that it seemed to simply materialize from the water molecules themselves. It wasn’t there; then it was there. With slow, rhythmic, lateral undulations of the caudal fin and body the white tip reef shark slowly advanced our way. This shark was not the little juvenile of my first experience. Here was an adult fully as large as myself. Judging from the pelvic fin anatomy it was a male. Again there was that hint of antediluvian alarm stirred by the proximity of this large, apex predator. But as I watched the great fish slowly patrolling above the reef a new emotion emerged.

The grace and beauty being exhibited by the shark were stunningly beautiful. Suddenly it became very clear to me that I was seeing more than a lovely animal at home in its native habitat. I was comprehending the wonder of what three-hundred million years of evolutionary adaptation could accomplish. I really felt awe-stricken.

Tethered to a gaseous atmosphere by my snorkel, I marveled at the effortless coordination of pharyngeal musculature which passed life-sustaining oxygen over the shark’s five pairs of gills. Whereas by passage through the water required huge effort in order to overcome friction drag, the fusiform body of the shark seemed to slide through the water as if were moving in air. At this depth, I had no cognizance of water pressure or the movement of other animals nearby. Yet I knew that the neural cells along the shark’s lateral line were, like the most complex barometer, constantly monitoring its pressure/depth. These cells were also sending continuous feedback to the brain of any compression waves created by nearby movement from other fishes – and perhaps us I wondered? The struggles of an injured or diseased fish would draw instant attention from the white tip.

My sense of smell was inoperative as I paddled along the surface of the cove. The shark’s olfactory system was, on the other hand, operating at full efficiency. He could follow a blood trail through the water to a wounded fish hundreds of yards distant. As surely as my little, long-departed beagle Herman could follow the track of a fleeing rabbit; the reef shark could use its “nose” to track down an odoriferous source of food.

The water in which we swam with the shark was of crystalline clarity. Yet I also knew that even in the murkiest of waters the shark would know of our presence. Sprinkled liberally over its face were dozens upon dozens of tiny, dark speckles. In reality, each of these was a small pore ending in a sac-like structure known as an ampulla of Lorenzini. These too were nervous system organs of miraculous function. The ampullae were able to detect the bioelectric aura given off by living animals. We know this bioelectric quality exists because we measure it upon our own skin when we submit to an EKG. What would it be like to sense someone’s presence in a darkened room through the very pores of one’s skin? If only the shark could tell us. If only it could tell us what it feels like to have survived hundreds of millions of years of earth’s turmoil, climatic changes, asteroid impacts, and now the humiliation of being seen as nothing more than a source of shark fin soup.

These were the thoughts I entertained as the noble white tip reef shark turned away from us. Without answering my questions, and using the same graceful movements of fin and body which had brought him into his brief contact with us, he dematerialized back into a world I could only ponder in wonderment.


A Postscript:

Uninhabited at the time of our visit, Tripadvisor.com now lists some thirty resort properties on Pulau Perhentian Besar.


Since our encounter with the beautiful white tip reef shark, shark populations throughout the world’s oceans have declined by 71%.


Photo Credits:

grey reef shark by Chris Hub @ commons.wikimedia.org

hammerhead shark by Chris Mikael Krister @ commons.wikimedia.org

coral reef by Treetopz @ commons.wikimedia.org

clown fish by Nick Hobgood @ commons.wikimedia.org

parrot fish by Gustavo Gerdel @ commons.wikimedia.org

butterfly fish by Turner Hof @commons.wikimedia.org

giant clam by CIA @commons.wikimedia.org

sea cucumber by Jacinta Richardson & Paul Fenwick @ commons.wikimedia.org

white tip reef shark by Jan Derk @commons.wikimedia.org

all others by the author






42. A World Gone Mad! Have We Become the Mice in a Calhoun Social Experiment?

I first heard of Dr. John B. Calhoun’s work while an undergrad at Indiana State University. During a Sociology 170 class, our instructor made passing reference to the behavioral research Calhoun had done with rodents. The implications of his research in regards to human society intrigued me from the outset. Now, living in a 21st Century world that seems crippled by societal dysfunction, I wonder more than ever if Calhoun’s work with rodents was prophetic. Let me explain.

Over the course of time from the late 1940’s to the early 1970’s, Dr. Calhoun carried out a series of experiments by which he hoped to understand the effects of high population density on the social behavior of rats and mice.

First, I should point out that we owe a vote of thanks to the acquiescent lab mice and rats of the world1. They have been used for over a century as experimental animals. Because their physiology is quite similar to ours (over 90% of our genomes are shared), these animals have given us great insight into the mechanisms and treatments of human diseases in areas such as immunology, pharmacology, toxicology, and genetics.

The lab rodent’s ability to remember, learn, and socially interact has been used to study and give us a better understanding of the principles of learning and social behavior. Such knowledge can, in turn, provide insight into human behavior. And this brings us back to the social behavior experiments of Dr. Calhoun (1917-1995).

One of Calhoun’s final, most illuminating experiments was designed thusly. First an enclosure, called Universe 25 by Calhoun, was constructed for the mice. This experimental arena measured about 8ft. X 8ft. and contained hundreds of living compartments and burrows. Food and water were supplied in unlimited quantities. Into this compound, a veritable Eden for mice, Calhoun introduced four pairs of animals.

During the first three months of the experiment the mice behaved normally. They mated, nested, marked territories, and interacted as mice normally do. At the end of this time, Universe 25 had a population of just over 600 mice. But all was not well; soon after this the mouse Eden began its descent into mouse Hell.

The decline began with somewhat subtle changes. Calhoun designed the enclosure to be spacious and capable of housing a few thousand mice. In spite of this, they began crowding into particular areas where food was shared while ignoring other, unoccupied food stations. Calhoun characterized this odd behavior as a . . .  phenomenon in which the learned need for proximity to others . . . at a resource site gained dominance over the primary need, in this case food (my underline).

Soon a schism developed among male mice. They began to separate themselves into high and low status cohorts. Low status males were rebuffed by females, stopped even trying to mate, and withdrew to themselves to eat and sleep. The higher status males eventually became more aggressive. Suddenly, without apparent reason, they would violently attack other members of the colony. These aggressive, higher ranking males sexually assaulted other mice without regard to their gender. The females soon began to behave abnormally as well. They too became aggressive and their parental skills atrophied. Young were attacked, abandoned, or even cannibalized. Infant mortality rates approached 100%.

As Universe 25 approached its 18th month, reproduction within the colony began to decline. Calhoun marked this event as the beginning of the “death phase” whereby the once Utopian population began its slide into an irreversible extinction. Because of the pathological behavior of their parents, mice which were born just before the onset of the “death phase” received no training in normal social behavior. They spent all their time grooming themselves while lazily accepting the unlimited food and water provided. They lived unmated, apart from other mice and made no contributions whatsoever to the social functioning of the colony. In recognition of their fine coats Calhoun called these mice the “beautiful ones”.

Although the population of Universe 25 eventually reached over 2000 mice, the social fabric of the colony had long since broken down. The last mating occurred after two and one half years of colony existence. After months of stressful events including individuals going violently berserk, others totally withdrawing from society, youngsters succumbing to cannibalism, or having mothers who had lost their nesting and maternal instincts not one mouse survived.

Calhoun called this societal breaking point (manifested by a wide variety of abnormal behaviors) the behavioral sink. This so-called “sink” he defined as the point past which the slide into total societal breakdown and subsequent extinction was irretrievable. He had found that the natural social and survival behaviors of the rodents were severely altered by the stresses associated with living in a high-population-density environment.

At this point, I am compelled to admit that I have no expertise in ethology, the science of animal behavior. Nor should I be accredited talent in psychology. It should also be noted that many arguments have been made against equating the behavior of Calhoun’s mice with human behavior. It is certainly an interesting topic to explore. But wow! I can’t help but see parallels between the pathological social behavior of Calhoun’s rodents and the myriad of social dysfunctions we see in today’s human societies. Is there evidence that this is so?

Perhaps we should first ask whether or not earth’s human population density has increased much over time? It has been estimated that the planet’s human population in 1000 A.D was around 310,000,000. About 47% of earth’s land surface (24,642,757 sq. mi.) is habitable; this is the area that excludes deserts, mountains, etc. (zo.utexas.edu/courses/Thoc/land.html). These figures give us a population density of 12.5 people/sq. mi. at that time. The human population of earth is now around 7,600,000,000. The result is an average population density of 308 people/sq. mi. of habitable land. This is a 2,464% increase in human population density on habitable land over a period of ten centuries. So yes, human population density has increased dramatically over time.

ABC news has reported that between Saturday, July 17 and Friday, July 23, 2021 the Gun Violence Archive tracked at least 1,018 shooting incidents in the U.S. This is a shooting every 10 minutes. Sudden, violent outbursts of aggression (88% by men) left at least 404 people dead and 928 wounded. I can’t help but reflect back to the alpha males in Calhoun’s study which suddenly ran violently amok and attacked their own colony members.

Action.org reported that in January 2018, 552,830 people were counted as homeless in the United States. Over one-third of these people were either mentally ill or suffered from substance abuse. Granted, this is only around 6% of the total U.S. population but it does represent an exceedingly large group of people who have withdrawn and are basically absent from the normal social functioning of our country. In Japan, a whole class of men some half-million strong (the so-called hikikomori)2 are recognized as social loners and involuntary celibates. In the U.S. large numbers of males are similarly socially isolated. Referred to as NEETS (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), a Pew Research Center study suggest that there may be as many as ten million such men in the U.S. An article in New York magazine suggests that such men, account for somewhere between 23 and 46 percent of the decrease in young men’s participation in the labor force. Sound eerily similar to the totally disconnected “beautiful ones” in Calhoun’s mouse colony?

What about sexual dysfunction? The website medicalnewstoday.com identifies and defines some 16 gender identities among humans. These include agender, androgyne, bigender, butch, cisgender, gender expansive, gender fluid, gender outlaw, polygender, and transgender. Of course genetics does influence gender identification. In light of this, perhaps any of the above identities could be considered biologically genuine. But in comparison to the sexual identities we have recognized for centuries (male- gay – female) a question must be asked. Are all the above identities normal points on the sexuality spectrum? Are they individualities we simply hadn’t yet discovered? Or, are they evidence of anomalous sexual behaviors driven to expression by the societal pressures of excessive population density? Could it actually be that the recent explosion in human gender identities parallels the descent of Calhoun’s mice into hypersexual, pansexual, and asexual social pathologies?

The National Children’s Alliance reports that annually nearly 700,000 children are abused in the U.S. each year. Well over half of these cases (61%) involved simple neglect. Annually about 1800 children die from abuse or neglect. Remember the female mice in Calhoun’s study which abandoned, ignored, or even killed their own young? Is this similarity in pathologies (rodent-human) coincidental? I am left to wonder.

There could be more examples given. I haven’t even considered the destructive, ongoing wars between the religious sects and ethnic groups of the world. Political tribalism within our own country, and others, is flourishing and unproductive. The environmental havoc we have wreaked on our planetary home is directly related to the exponential growth of the human population3. The recently released United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change is frightening beyond belief. That is, if one has confidence in the predictive power of science and has even an iota of concern about our own “Universe 25” – the one we will leave to our descendants. Might these negative social interactions be taken as evidence of population-induced societal stress among humans? Isn’t it a given that increasing numbers of people require more resources and must crowd into the finite amount of habitable land we have?

As those of you who have followed by blogs recall, my underlying thesis has been the value to humans of exposure to nature4. Many, many studies have shown the positive effects of contact with the natural world on our physical and psychological health. Thus, those of us fortunate enough to live in rural settings are able to avoid many of the stressors found in densely populated, urban environments. In fact research (Li & Kanazawa, 2016) indicates that people in rural areas tend to be happier overall than those in urban zones. But even in rural settings the negative effects of population density are not absent.

Recently more insidious threats to the well-being of rural and urban folk alike have reared their ugly heads. These are the 24 hour news cycle and the growth of social media. Modern technology allows constant exposure to news even in the most remote corners of the world. Today an unceasing cascade of the world’s calamities can be delivered to everyone’s front door. If we do not exercise caution, we can find ourselves relentlessly bombarded with pictures of violent crime, humanitarian disasters, and global social unrest. Not the sorts of things that help to calm us or reassure us that we live in a world of order and safety.

The population density of rural Sullivan County, Indiana may be 46/sq. mi. but thanks to our computer or cell phone it might as well be 16,122/sq. mi. (Tokyo). Any post, comment, or photo can become instant fodder for anyone in the world to analyze, argue over, or reply to with venomous hatred. Such bickering and cyber-bullying strike me as psychological versions of the stressful physical attacks Calhoun’s densely populated mice constantly endured.

In addition the abundance of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories to be found in the cyber world are tremendously destructive. They cause vulnerable individuals to disconnect from the very nature of the reality in which they live. The risks of psychological stress and unhealthy social interaction provoked by too much time “online” are quite real. They do nothing more than ensure that we will not be able to interact in a beneficial, cooperative way; a necessity if human society is to function effectively.

Can we avoid our own fall into the behavioral sink? The challenges are many. Research suggests that our human ancestors lived in social groups of around 150 people; as do several hunter-gatherer societies currently (Dunbar, 1992). Dunbar further proposed that when group size exceeds this number, the group becomes unstable and begins to fragment. Dunbar believes that the size of the human neocortex limits the brain’s information processing capacity and this limits the number of relationships an individual can monitor simultaneously. Therefore functional group size is limited to around 150 among primates. Could this mean that the progression toward our own behavioral sink is inevitable simply because we have far exceeded the ideal human global population size (and social structure) thus creating social complexities that our minds are incapable of efficiently processing?

One branch of psychology suggests that we perceive and respond to the current environment as if it were the ancestral environment in which our social behavioral responses evolved (Toby & Cosmides, 1990). Cultural evolution proceeds much more rapidly than biological evolution. Therefore, could it be that we irrationally respond to increased population density pressures because social instincts, first developed during our less-populated primordial history, can no longer cope?  Might not such research help explain the human social dysfunctions I have summarized previously?

Maybe the incredible ability of humans to find technological answers to problems will save us from our current turmoil. Surely we must reclaim our ability to recognize threats to global society and our capacity to work cooperatively to solve them. Are we capable? Or are we humans, much like the ill-fated residents of Universe 25, at a tipping point – our own behavioral sink? Time will tell. I hope against hope that we are capable of rising to the challenge.

In the meantime, let us recall that less than 500 generations ago all human ancestors were hunter-gatherers whose survival depended upon a deep connection to, an understanding of, and a reverence for the natural world. This relationship is instinctively deep-rooted within us yet. A simple walk in a forest still enthralls us and enhances our mood. How many still enjoy the solitude, scenery, and rewards of our favorite fishing spot, spring mushroom woods, city park, or camping spot? The huge crowds which nowadays surge into our state and national parks offer proof that we still yearn for our ancestral connection to nature. Think about how we are drawn as if magnetically to the ocean surf. Consider our inclination to stand in wonderment as we gaze upon magnificent vistas such as the Tetons, Yosemite Valley, the Grand Canyon, or the Milky Way as it fills the pitch-black, night sky. Yes, in the interim, there are ways to lighten the stresses put upon us by modern human society. There are ways to regain our sanity. They lie just outside our door.




Photo Credits:

White mouse photo by Pogrebnoj-Alexandroff @ commons.wikimedia.org

John B. Calhoun @ en.wikipedia.org

Calhoun’s mouse Utopia @ commons.wikimedia.org

Robin Dunbar @ commons.wikimedia.org

World population growth graph @ Australian Academy of Science

Assiniboin tepee and rider by Edward S. Curtis courtesy of Lewis-Clark.org

Moraine Lake. Alberta, Canada by the author.

Further Reading:
  1. The Mighty Mouse: The Impact of Rodents on Advances in Biomedical Research (nih.gov)
  2. The World of American Hikikomori (nymag.com)
  3. Animated Map: Visualizing 200 Years of U.S. Population Density (visualcapitalist.com)
  4. What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature? (nih.gov)
  5. For an interesting summary of Dr. Calhoun’s work: READ-Crowding (mayfieldschools.org)


41. The Silence of Elephants

I recently read an article about an elephant hunter in Gabon (Africa) who was ambushed by his quarry and trampled to death. This led me to reflect upon my own transitory but fascinating encounters with elephants.

You first may be prompted to ask, how could a person be ambushed by an elephant? This is certainly a reasonable question given the size of the animal we are discussing. An African forest elephant (the executioner in this case) typically nudges the scales at nearly three tons. That is a weight equal to around 20 NFL linemen. An African savannah (or bush) elephant weighs twice as much with big males reaching nearly six and a half tons. Given this weight, and with the padded base of each appendage having a circumference of four feet, one might doubt that any degree of stealthiness would be possible for such an enormous quadruped. Alas, the would-be Gabonese hunter found out much too late that elephants are quite capable of such feats of craftiness.

I recall another interesting tale whereby I first learned of the potential for incredible quietness and cunningness elephants possess.

The photo above shows a group of elephants in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The display was begun in 1915 by Carl Akeley who also collected some of the specimens. I first heard of Akeley when I ran across his autobiography in my high school library. Published in 1923, In Brightest Africa is something of a swashbuckling tale of an Indiana Jones-type adventurer/explorer/big game hunter. Such a story should be expected from a man who killed an attacking leopard with his bare hands. His book is still a fascinating narrative although the recounting of his hunts of charismatic animals, such as elephants and gorillas, will trouble many readers.

Perhaps even more noteworthy, was Akeley’s skill as a taxidermist. He was a pioneer in this field and many consider him the “father” of this specialty. He really did elevate taxidermy to an art form. I saw my first Akeley taxidermies at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I recall being stunned upon seeing how lifelike his work was. The delineation of muscle masses, tendons, and even blood vessels beneath the skin made the animals look as though they might walk right out of their dioramas at any moment.

But back to the story; it was during one hunt in Africa that Akeley himself learned just how quietly and craftily an elephant can approach a pursuer. Hunting for museum specimens, he was stalking a group of three bulls. Akeley at last heard the crashing sounds of feeding coming from a bamboo forest 200 yards ahead. Pausing to appraise the rifle and cartridges his gun-bearer had handed him, Akeley: was suddenly conscious that an elephant was almost on top of me. I have no knowledge of how the warning came. I have no mental record of hearing him, seeing him, or of any warning from the gun boy. . . My next mental record is of a tusk right at my chest. Akeley instinctively grabbed the tusk and swung in between the two. This he had practiced in his mind in anticipation of such an attack and he believed this “rehearsing” is what saved his life.

The bull knocked him down and proceeded to place its curled-up trunk on Akeley in an attempt to smash him into lifelessness. He drove his tusks into the ground on either side of me, his curled-up trunk against my chest. I had a realization that I was being crushed, and as I looked into one wicked little eye above me I knew I could expect no mercy from it. By some good fortune, the tusks struck rock or root before they plunged deeply enough into the ground for Akeley to be squashed. Still, his injuries were significant. Akeley recalled: I heard a wheezy grunt as he plunged down and then — oblivion. The thing that dazed me was a blow from the elephant’s trunk as he swung it down to curl it back out of harm’s way. It broke my nose and tore my cheek open to the teeth. Had it been an intentional blow it would have killed me instantly. Akeley reported lying there for four or five hours until his porters and gun-bearers worked up the courage to return and check on him. Still he considered himself fortunate that the elephant did not, as he thought usual, return to gore, trample, and/or dismember him.

I suppose, previous to hearing this story, I had not given serious thought as to how dangerous an elephant might be. Growing up on a diet of Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies had given me the impression that they were friendly animals and quite amenable to human partnership. A boyhood visit to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus when it came to Terre Haute did nothing to alter my delusion. The elephants obediently marched southward from the train station, down 3rd Street and U.S. 41 to the fairgrounds. They helped erect the big top and later performed beneath it.

It was not until many years later that I got my first hint that elephants were not animals with which to trifle. First there was a lecture I attended during which the presenter spoke about the use of Asian elephants in the logging industry in Thailand. One particular slide stuck in my mind. It showed a male under restraint (one leg chained to a tree) because he was in musth. Musth is the male elephant’s equivalent to the female heat cycle. During musth, the testosterone levels of the male become elevated many fold. The temporal glands on each side of the head produce pheromones which dampen the side of the bull’s head. Additional they tend to produce a constant stream of urine which wets their hind legs and thus marks the path of their wonderings. Woe to a younger, weaker male who crosses this track.

The huge increase in male hormone production during musth makes such males super aggressive. Their hostility can be unpredictably spontaneous and may be directed toward other elephants, humans, or objects in their immediate surroundings. In the case of the male shown in the lecturer’s slide every plant, branch, small log, or other object within reach had been thrown aside in enraged madness. The ground in a circle ranging as far as the restraining chain would allow was swept as clean as a dining room floor. Although sad to see this proud animal so restrained, one needed little imagination to understand what would happen if a person came within reach of such an infuriated, brutally powerful animal.

My next lesson in the wisdom of giving elephants a wide birth came in Malaysia. Trekking through the rainforest from Selangor state over to the neighboring state of Negri Sembilan, my Temuan friends and I came upon an old, streamside encampment. Who had used it, the purpose of their visit – sinister or benevolent – we knew not. Some Asian elephants had also discovered the camp. Had the occupants been driven away we wondered? The camp and its contents had been nearly demolished by the pachyderms. The animals had taken a particular interest in the cookware used by the campers. Their cooking pots had been trod into flattened, tin pancakes. Dodong surmised the elephants had been attracted to the salt residue in the pans.

The impressively huge footprints of the elephants crossed the stream and headed upslope to the northeast. Above the stream their path had forced them to squeeze in between two large trees. They had spent a bit of time wallowing at the brook and their mud-caked bodies had left huge smears of clay on each tree some seven to eight feet above the ground. Our intended path took us up the hill along the same route as the elephants. Within an hour or so we had gained on the small herd and could hear them in the distance. There was the typical crashing sound of vegetation being pulled into reach and broken. Low rumbles, snorts, and squeaks indicated a group feeding in a leisurely, stress-free way. Eager to actually see a group of Asian elephants in their natural habitat, I urged my companion Dodong to guide us close enough for a good look. His reply was based upon a lifetime of wisdom gained by daily exposure to the forest and its creatures and it put a decisive halt to my hope. The answer was short and sweet and accompanied by a look I took to mean, “Are you crazy?” Mereka jahat (“they are mean”), he said! With that, Dodong proceeded to take us on a quick but cautious detour around what he obviously considered one of the most dangerous animals in his rainforest home.

Years later I was able to at last see wild elephants. These were savannah elephants in the east African country of Tanzania. At our first stop, Arusha N.P., elephants are uncommon and we encountered none. The second park on our route was Lake Manyara N.P. and here we were more fortunate and saw many elephants. How exciting to finally get to see these fascinating creatures up close as they browsed, tended their young, enjoyed a dust bat, or simply rested in the shade of an immense sausage tree. Here I experienced firsthand the storied silence with which they can move.

As we sat in our Land Rover watching a pair of females browsing the leaves of an acacia, movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention. As I glanced to the right, a young male elephant walked by our vehicle. Although this four-ton animal was within a few yards of the Land Rover, not a hint of the sound of footfall could I detect. It was abruptly very clear to me how one could be focused upon something else, as Akeley had been, and have one of these huge animals stealthily and suddenly materialize upon you. Quite an eye-opening experience it was.

I chose The Silence of Elephants as the title for this composition for another reason too. Not hearing elephants is now more often due to the simple fact that their numbers have been so drastically reduced. This is true in both Asia and Africa. As an example, when we finally reached Tarangire N.P., we had our best success seeing elephants, over 100 in a couple of days’ time. But Akeley, in his aforementioned book, reported seeing 700 elephants in just one, single herd. This was in the early 1900’s

Poaching for their highly prized ivory tusks and loss of habitat to an ever-expanding human population are the two main reasons for the precipitous decline of elephants. The freefall in their populations has been particularly severe since the 1970’s when the price of ivory (mostly destined for the Far East) exploded. The population of elephants in Africa was once thought to be around five million. Today it is estimated that there are about 400 000 remaining. This is a reduction of 92%. Asian elephant populations have declined by 50% and only 40 000 to 50 000 now exist in the wild. China banned the domestic trade in elephant ivory in 2017 but some experts still believe elephants could become extinct in Africa within the next two decades.

Elephants are so amazing in so many ways. How sad to imagine a world without them. As researchers have come to know more about them, the argument against killing elephants has grown stronger. We now know that there is much going on within that big brain of theirs, the largest of any land mammal.

It turns out that the old axiom about elephants having long memories is quite true. For example, herds depend on the long-term memories of old females to lead them to remembered water sources in times of drought. Communication among elephants is fascinatingly complex and in 1985 it was discovered that they can converse with one another by using sounds too low in frequency for humans to hear. Such sounds carry for long distances and allow elephants to communicate even when separated by a distance of over two miles. Recently elephant researcher Caitlin O’Connell found that these so-called ultrasounds can travel through the ground surface and elephants actually “hear” them with their feet.

The social behavior of elephants is highly complex. A baby elephant in distress will receive the attention of family members with pats and caresses. The website globalelephants.org notes that elephants “. . . express grief, joy, compassion, self-awareness, and play.”

They display powerful altruism as well. This gallant concern for others of their kind is displayed when they are confronted with injury or death among their herd. Carl Akeley reported long ago that he had observed other elephants gather around a comrade he had wounded and attempt to help the mortally injured bull back on its feet. Elephants have been observed showing reverence for their dead by gently touching the bones of their deceased companion. They may pause at a place where a loved one has died and stand there silently for several minutes. Are they grieving; perhaps remembering past, shared adventures? Given their high degree of intelligence one would certainly have to entertain this as a possibility.

It is believed that elephants are one of only a handful of species that, like humans, can recognize themselves as a unique individual (= self-recognition). As noted, they appear to also have an equally rare (so far as we know) understanding of the concept of mortality. These are incredibly powerful, complicated, higher mental powers. If only we humans could direct some tiny degree of empathy toward these exceedingly extraordinary animals. We would then surely recognize the immorality of killing such kindred beings; especially for trinkets we could well live without. Perhaps greater empathy could then also help us to recognize the terrible depravity of driving any member of the Creation into extinction. This seems particularly obvious when we are dealing with an animal whose mental powers are, in many cases, human-like. With this recognition might come, in the end, the opportunity to avoid the looming silence of elephants.



Elephant herd at the AMNH @ commons.wikimedia.org

Carl Akeley with leopard specimen @ commons.wikimedia.org

Excerpts from In Brightest Africa at – https://archive.org/details/inbrightestafric00akel/page/24/mode/2up?ref=ol&view=theater

Elephant in musth by Yathin Krishnappa @ en.wikipedia.com

Sausage tree by Bernard DuPont @ commons.wikimedia.org

All other photos by the author.


40. A Gloomy View from Google Earth: The Waning of a Lovely People

I first saw the lovely valley at Ulu Berenang in 1974. That surely seems a long time ago. And yet, even after nearly four decades, I can close my eyes and recapture that scene.

Looking southward from the narrow bitumen road which pierced the tiny village of Berenang, I was rewarded with an idyllic view of rural, tropical Malaysia. Stretching into the distance the narrow, well-watered valley adjacent to the town was covered in an unbroken field of waist-high rice. The stalks with their heavily laden, golden grain-heads waved rhythmically to and fro with the wafting breezes. Along each side of the valley there stood a phalanx of coconut palms. The tall trunks sought the sun, their life force, and arched outward over the clearing that held the ripening padi. Each palm was crowned with a lush chapeau of bright green fronds. These were pinnately divided into leaflets which projected outward from the central vane of each frond. Each leaflet was a stiff, lanceolate blade which fluttered in the wind and gave each tree its voice; a soft, whispered tapping of leaflet upon leaflet.

Behind the ranks of palms there stood row upon well-ordered row of Heavea brasiliensis trees. Each tree bore the familiar, sloping, parallel grooves of the rubber tapper’s awl. A small cup rested upon each trunk, ready to capture the dripping latex spawned by the tapper’s delicate gouging of the bark. Plantations such as these made Malaysia one of the world’s top exporters of natural rubber. Down the valley, interspersed between palm and rubber, were sprinkled the kampong houses of the Malay rice growers. These houses, beautiful in their rustic simplicity, stood above the ground on stilts. Not only did this keep the home above a potential flood, such a design made entry rather more difficult for unwelcome house guests such as scorpions, centipedes, and Indian  cobras. Built above the ground, the homes were also more likely to catch cooling breezes. In a home with no electricity, this is no small matter. After all this is a land where the daily temperature hovers in the mid-nineties and the humidity approaches one hundred percent. The houses often featured a high-pitched roof covered by attap palm thatch. This design rapidly shed the rain and allowed hot air to rise above the floor-level living spaces. All in all, the houses’ clever designs gave a distinct quality of bucolic beauty, minimalism, and comfort.

Beyond the valley, as one stood looking down its length, there rose the rainforest covered mountains of the central massif. Rendered a hazy blueish by their distance, the forest appeared immense, limitless. These heights emitted their own aura, this being the Siren call of mystery and exploration. Back there, at the base of those mountains, rested a little world hidden from those who would view the valley only from the road. This secreted realm concealed a tiny village inhabited by Temuan aborigines. It was a piece of the world which clearly conveyed to me the realization that I was in a realm totally alien to anything I had previously experienced. It was a microcosmic piece of planet earth totally foreign to me in every way. The language, methods of procuring food, mode of dress, habits of hygiene, and spiritual beliefs of the Temuan were all utterly novel to me.

Walking the worn trail that meandered from the town to the Temuan village, one eventually left the parcels of Malay kampong houses and passed through rubber plantation. Beyond the well-ordered human woodland there grew patches of secondary forest. Approaching the Temuan village, I became aware of a human presence due to a pleasant sounding, harmonic tune emanating from the forest canopy. In the tops of a few of the taller trees, the Temuan had lashed long pieces of giant bamboo. Near the top of these twenty feet lengths of bamboo, they had cut a notch much like the sound hole of a wooden flute. As the wind played over the bamboos, they emitted a sonata of melodic, keening resonances which gave a mysterious atmosphere to the surrounding forest. What an ingenious invention I thought. These were wind chimes taken to a whole new level. These Brobdingnagian bamboo flutes were but my first indication of the deep spiritual connection the Temuan had with their rainforest home.

I found the Temuan to be attractive and fascinating in so many ways. The men, such as my friends Dodong and Oha, were generally less than five and half feet in height; the women closer to five feet. Their small stature was an expression of Bergmann’s Rule. This zoological principle holds that mammals (humans included) which live in the tropics tend to have smaller bodies than those that live at higher latitudes. This is because smaller mammals, somewhat counter-intuitively, have more surface (skin) area in relationship to body volume than larger ones. Having greater surface area allows for more efficient radiation of body heat and thus a greater ability to stay cool in the tropical heat. I can attest to the efficacy of this body form. On multiple hikes, I would find myself wearing sweat-soaked clothing so wet it looked as if I had fallen into a stream. Meanwhile, the skin of my Temuan companions always seemed to stay amazingly dry. Several thousand years of natural selection can work its adaptive genius on humans just as well as any other species.

What a lovely people the Temuan. Though diminutive in size, they were large in openness, humor, and hospitality. From the first time I walked into their village until three years later, when I had to bid them a reluctant adieu, they were ever gracious and accepting of my presence among them. Their skills in traversing the forest were unparalleled. How, I wondered, did they avoid becoming disoriented and lost in this vast, green world? To my eye, the forest appeared uniform in every direction I looked; dangerously so for a solo novice. I once asked them how they accomplished their amazing navigation. Their answer, while patently obvious to them, did little to illuminate this uncanny ability for me. “We just know where to go,“ was their cryptic explanation of this incredible orienteering ability.

Their skill in starting fire using sodden wood defied belief. Deciphering the claw marks left upon a tree as those made by a Malaysian sun bear, identifying the scat of a clouded leopard, or stalking a silvered leaf monkey were as routine for the Temuan as finding the dairy products aisle in a Publix supermarket would be for us. Contrary to what one might think, the tropical rainforest is not a lush, fecund realm where food and drink are to be had by merely stretching out the hand. With thousands upon thousands of plant species, knowing which ones are edible is not a given for the neophyte. Also, much of the production of fruit is out of reach high in the canopy. Even something as seemingly simple as finding water – it is the rainforest after all – may not be easy. I recall one trek with Dodong when I found my canteen empty and no water in sight. Not a stream or pool had we seen in hours. When I told him of my intense thirst, Dodong simply said he would find water for me. Within a few minutes he had located a climbing vine, hacked out a three foot section, and showed me how to tip the vine upward and hold it near my mouth to receive the coolest, most thirst quenching drink of water imaginable.

On another overnight jaunt, I informed Dodong that I had forgotten anything to hold my vital jolt of morning coffee. He returned shortly with a cup he had fashioned from a section of giant bamboo. The skillfulness with which the Temuan were able to manipulate objects in their environment into articles of utilitarian use simply defied imagination. Never before had I encountered a people so connected, so resourceful, so intimately coupled with the natural world.

But in spite of all that was right with the Temuan and their way of life, a dark shadow loomed upon their world. Dodong, with powerful foresight, could see his people’s future. I could sense it too and was injected with the same mood of foreboding that already troubled my friend’s soul. Already the Temuan had been forced to establish their villages outside of their preferred location, the deeper forest. In an effort to deny any possible assistance to the communist insurgents who plagued Malaya in the late 1950’s, the Temuan and other orang asli (“original people”) groups had undergone wide-scale resettlement. By the time I reached what had since become Malaysia in 1973, communist guerrilla activity was almost extinct. The Temuan however still languished in their new villages. In a pitifully sad nod to their ancestral life, the little village where I shared their communion was located as far from the road and as close to the forest as was allowed.

My friend lamented the fact that the younger people in his village were losing touch with the old ways. Their reliance on padi rice as a staple and the products of the local Chinese dry-goods shops had grown. The baubles of modernity lured them from the old ways. Consequently their skills as trackers, hunters, herbalists, and story-tellers atrophied. Caught in limbo between the old way of life and Malaysia’s rapid ascension into the modern world of commerce, the younger generation of Temuan was not adept at either. Ten thousand years as slash and burn agrarians and hunter-gatherers leave one ill prepared for a job in the contemporary world. Starting work at 7:00A sharp means little to a people who have never had a clock. The eight hour shift is incomprehensible to a people who have for millennia eaten, slept, hunted, and socialized in accord with rhythms not of the clock but of the corpus and the forest. Dodong had no need for literacy to fully understand all this. His innate intelligence and sense of place told him all he needed to know.

And now, over forty years later, I can with the click of a computer mouse, look down on the world I once briefly shared with Dodong. Except, of course, that world is gone. Granted, I can find a place called Berenang, but it is unrecognizable to me. Gone is the beautiful valley. Nowhere do I see a tiny village of stilted, palm-thatched huts; the lovely kampong houses of the Malay rice farmers. Gone is the smoke from the cooking fires, gently rising into the still, humid air. Nowhere do I see evidence of a gentle people, a happy people, a people wedded to their forest home.

I do see the cities of Kajang and Seremban swollen to ten times the size they were when my Temuan teachers and I trod the forest lying between them. Instead of jungle, I now see oil palm plantations, factories, golf courses, a new international airport, expressways and cloverleaves where none existed. What has happened to Dodong? He was old enough when I knew him to relate frightening stories of the Japanese soldiers who invaded his rainforest home in 1941. He likely now rests with his ancestors as do Oha, Selopang, and Pakok. What has become of their children, their grandchildren? Have they been able to assimilate themselves into modern Malaysia or do they languish still in the netherworld of lost traditions, lost identity?

Dodong and his descendants were not the first people of the natural world to suffer the consequences of what we humans call progress. I fear that they may be among the last. It is becoming more and more difficult to find tribal people who still maintain their culture. Thus has it always been. Superior numbers, superior technology, or superior firepower; one way or another, those deemed primitive always lose out.

Some have pointed out to me that my feelings are too romantic, too far removed from reality. I have sentimentalized the aboriginal way of life they say. There is no charm in a lifestyle that involves cooking over an open wood fire; eating snakes, monkeys, or insects; dying from an infection easily cured by an antibiotic they say. Doubtless there is merit to their argument. Who am I to say that the forest may be a better home than one with plumbing and electricity? What privilege have I to suggest the young Temuan shouldn’t have at least a chance to wear Nike® running shoes, own a smart phone, watch television, or clad themselves in Outerwear® when these things are readily available to me? I have no reasoned answer as to why my aboriginal friends are not equally entitled to have more.

Nevertheless, something just doesn’t feel right. I have the lingering feeling that, despite the challenges of their way of life, maybe the Temuan already did have more. So much seemed good about their lifestyle. Perhaps they possessed things more valuable than the clothes, electronics, and vehicles by which we in the “modern” world measure success.

My mind harbors the memory of a contented gathering of Temuan hunters at their evening fire. The blackness of the surrounding forest loomed at our backs. Tales of the day’s hunt were shared, critiqued, and relished. Children sat among the adults and absorbed the lessons and mythologies offered by their elders. A deep spirituality fed by their profound, mychorrizal-like connection with the forest was nurtured. Often bamboo nose-flutes and crude stringed or percussion instruments appeared and the night was enriched as ancient melodies floated off into the humid night air.

I recall the affection and attention they directed toward their happy, good-tempered children. I hear the laughter and feel the companionship within the small, closely knit village. I recollect a society in which theft, assault, and homicide were unknown. Yes, I do have much myself. But, I am still burdened by the suspicion that the Western notion of progress may not be the panacea for happiness many would propose. I am left to wonder; have we, in the name of progress, traded for things of lesser value?

I have seen what the displacement of an ancient culture looks like and it isn’t pretty. Recognizing the pain etched in the face of my friend Dodong, as he helplessly watched his world disintegrate before his eyes, was tormenting. For tribal peoples, the results of being displaced geographically and culturally are incredibly devastating.

(Satellite image of progressive deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon 1975-2001)

Over the years, group after tribal group has succumbed to the on-rushing tsunamis of colonization, population growth, blossoming infrastructure, and progress creeping over our planet’s wild places. It is though I stand on a peak watching the inexorable creep of a pahoehoe lava flow as it voraciously consumes all that is living, all that is good, all that is beautiful in our world. These things I see courtesy of Google Earth and the view is disheartening.


Photo Credits:

Malay kampong house by Bin Gregory @ commonswikimedia.org
Deforestation in Brazil: Landsat satellite image USGS

All other photos by the author.



39. A Strange Animal and Its Untimely Decline: Reflections Upon the Pangolin

 Working as a zoologist in Southeast Asia for three years exposed me to a remarkable variety of exceedingly strange and interesting plants and animals. The tropical rainforest of Malaysia harbors a biodiversity of astounding proportions. There are lizards, frogs, and snakes which can glide from tree to tree. Here, growing upon a parasitic plant known as Rafflesia, can be found the world’s largest flower (3 ft. in diameter). Upon the tidal flats roam fishes which spend much of their time out of the water (see my blog 31. Of Course a Fish Can’t Climb a Tree!).

Malaysia’s forests are prowled by tigers, leopards and smaller, secretive felines such as the fishing cat and golden cat.  Living here too are some of SE Asia’s last remaining elephants. The elusive Malayan tapir and the odd little ungulate known as the mouse deer also call the rainforest of Malaysia home. Known as sang kancil in Malayan folklore, the mouse deer is the world’s smallest ungulate.  It stands only twelve inches at the shoulder and weighs about the same as a rabbit.

Endemic to Malaysia is a fascinating assemblage of serpents including venomous pit-vipers, cobras, kraits, coral snakes, and sea snakes. Among the insects are mantids that resemble orchids, bees which do not sting, and orthopterans which look extraordinarily like plants. Inhabiting the seas that gently splash upon Malaysia’s 3000 miles of shoreline are reef sharks and hammerheads, mantis shrimp powerful enough to break aquarium glass, venomous stonefish and cone shells, giant clams, and beautiful clown fish.

As you can see, picking a champion peculiarity from this large cast of characters is challenging in the extreme. But, if forced to do so, I might have to choose the pangolin as the oddest creature I encountered while living in Malaysia. There are eight species of pangolins (aka scaly anteater) in the world, the one living in Malaysia is known variously as the Sunda pangolin, Malayan pangolin, or Javan pangolin. Other species occur in India, the Philippines, and Africa.

Around Serdang, Malaysia it was well-known that I would happily accept snakes, frogs, lizards and pretty much any other kinds of animals locals might run across. Some I might need as museum/teaching specimens at the university. Others I would photograph and observe for a period of time before releasing them once again. So it was that one of my lab assistants presented me with a pangolin that had been caught near campus.

What a bizarre looking little mammal! About the size of a cat it was but, instead of a characteristic coat of soft fur, its body was covered by hundreds of thin, overlapping scales. These, being made of keratin, looked and felt similar to my own fingernails. The front legs were shorter than the back ones but were powerfully built and armed with sharp, re-curved claws.

These were used for ripping into termite mounds or ant nests. The little animal seemed entirely docile (having no teeth it could not have bitten if it had wanted to) and preferred to remain balled-up in the protective posture for which its kind is noted. (The Malay word pengguling refers to something that rolls up.) Its beady little eyes hinted at poor vision, but pangolins have an acute olfactory sense with which they locate their ant and termite prey. Lord Medway, in his book The Wild Mammals of Malaya, reported that the stomach of one pangolin that was examined contained 200 000 ant workers and pupae. Lacking teeth, pangolins rely upon an extremely long, sticky tongue to capture their prey.

Pangolins are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity. However, I thought that I could supply a piece of termite-infested wood and thus safely maintain the little animal at least overnight. A bit more time observing it and taking photos on the morrow and then I would send it back to a forest area not far from our campus. Having established my plan, I transferred the pangolin to a large, plexiglass cage in my office. The cage was not locked but had a cleverly designed sliding door which I thought would effectively baffle the captive and prevent its escape.

Imagine my shock when I opened the door to my office the next morning. My first thought was an explosion in the chemistry lab directly through the adjoining wall. Notes and papers had been shuffled about on my desk. Others lie scattered about on the floor. Books had been hurled from their shelves. Specimen jars and their herptile occupants had been dislodged from shelves and lie upon the floor albeit miraculously unbroken. And then I glanced over at the pangolin’s cage. The presumably unbreachable sliding door stood agape. The cage’s former inhabitant was nowhere to be seen.

Making another quick visual scan of the office, Manis javanica was nowhere to be seen. It had to be in the office somewhere; the door and windows were intact. I looked under my desk. I searched under my office-mate Cheong Huat’s desk. I looked under the sink. I opened every cabinet and looked inside. Impossibly, the animal had disappeared. As I stood there baffled, I happened to notice a lower, open shelf near my desk. A short row of books sitting on the shelf were undisturbed. Getting down on my hands and knees, I peered behind the books into the darkened shelf. There, curled up in its typical sleep posture, was the little escapee.

I picked the pangolin up and proceeded to carry him over to the building we used for housing lab rats. Here I placed him in one of the cages which were made of heavy wood and hardware cloth. They seemed sturdy enough and had previously withstood the chisel-sharp teeth of the rodents housed there. I spent the rest of the morning cleaning up my office mess. A few brief observations of pangolin feeding behavior tomorrow morning and I would set the diminutive captive free.

I suspect that you are way ahead of me at this point. I entered the lab the next morning to find the pangolin gone. The escape it had engineered was an impressive one. There was no fiddling with the mechanism by which the cage was locked. The pangolin had resorted to brute force and simply used its massive fore claws to excavate its way right through the dense, one inch-thick wall of the cage. Once out of the cage, it had simply pushed open the swinging door of the lab building and was soon roaming wild once again.

Years later, I was reminded of this adventure when I ran across an Internet article that described the pangolin’s brain as particularly well-suited for problem solving. This trait, the article noted, was highly adaptive for finding food but it also made the pangolin a master escape artist. I could only sit there and think: Brother, you aren’t telling me anything!

I wish the story could conclude here with its happy ending. Unfortunately the descendants and relatives of my fascinating little captive have had a rough time of it in the intervening years. In the decades since my interesting encounter, the various pangolin species have become the world’s most heavily and illegally trafficked animals. For example, in April of 2020 the Malaysian government confiscated bags of illegal pangolin scales weighing six tons. This single consignment is roughly equivalent to 12,000 living pangolins. In 2019, a shipment of nine tons of scales (18,000 pangolins) was seized in Hong Kong. In January of this year (2021), another six tons (12,000 pangolins) of scales bound for Viet Nam were seized in Lagos, Nigeria. Just three shipments, representing over 40,000 animals; no wonder the world’s pangolin population has gone into free fall.

Why has this harmless, engaging, pint-sized representative of the Creation become subject to such intense misuse by humans? As is often the case with such targeted animals, the source of its demise is a noxious combination of human superstition and greed.

The diagram below (by Lori Bentley at oxpeckers.org,) shows the relationships between cultural beliefs and the use of pangolins in folk medicine, as bushmeat, and even as a source of prideful boasting (due to its high cost) by dinner hosts. The scales of pangolins are used as an ingredient in both traditional Asian and African medicine. A range of ailments is believed cured through such use including heart disease, cancer, and insufficient lactation among women. As noted, pangolin scales are composed of the same protein found in skin, hair, and nails. No Western scientific evidence demonstrates that these scales are effective medicinally.*

In China and Vietnam, pangolin meat is relished and available in restaurants. In Africa pangolins often appear in markets where bushmeat is sold. China has removed (2020) pangolin scales from its approved list of traditional medicines. Retired Chinese NBA player Yao Ming and model Angela Wing (aka Angelababy) have been enlisted to publicly promote the conservation of pangolins. Ironically pangolins are legislatively protected in most of the countries in which they are found. In spite of such laws and their championing by celebrities, the illegal harvest and trade in pangolin products continues. *

History tells us that the use of wild animals as human food is a very risky proposition. Several extremely dangerous viral diseases of humans have made the jump from wild animal hosts to humans. These include HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, influenza, and of course the coronavirus that has led to the COVID-19 pandemic. Incidentally, although bats are a prime suspect, there is suspicion among some epidemiologists that the COVID coronavirus may have made the jump to humans from pangolins.

As the human global population increases (projected to be 11 billion by the end of the century) interactions with wildlife such as the pangolin will also rise. Dr. Peter Daszak, President of the EcoHealth Alliance and a disease ecologist, has found, “a strong correlation between the risk of pandemic disease and human population density (Nature, 2008).   He has also stated that, You can predict very confidently as each year moves forward, we’re going to see more and more diseases emerge.

Consider the recent social and economic misery created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now imagine a future virus that jumps to humans from a wild animal in a bushmeat market. What if this time the virus is so intractable and mutable that no treatment, no vaccine is effective against it? Best we remember that Mother Nature swings a big bat and, as conservationist Rob Watson has said, she always bats last, and she always bats 1.000.

History also tells us that targeting a species for consumptive purposes often results in a disastrous end for the selected animal. For example, our ancestors have already deprived us of the chance to stand enraptured at the spectacle of a million bison grazing shoulder-deep in an endless sea of big bluestem. When Europeans arrived in North America, an estimated fifty to sixty million, American bison roamed the land. One hundred and forty million acres of prairie grew. By the turn of the 19th century, the bison population had been reduced to around 300 individuals (a decrease of 99.9%). Today only 1% of that original prairie remains.

Likewise we of this new, more depauperate planet shall never again witness the onward rushing whirlwind that was a passenger pigeon flock. A feathered tempest Aldo Leopold called them**. Their original population has been estimated at five to six billion. This is a number so large as to be difficult to

grasp. But, imagine this. If a flock of four billion pigeons flew over at the rate of one bird every ten seconds, it would take over 1200 years for all of them to pass by.  Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. They are no more.

In the years since my pangolin encounter, nearly 90% of the African elephants in the world have been lost. Ninety-seven percent of the Asian tiger population is gone within the last century. In the United States we have lost 90% of our wetlands, over 90% of our prairies. Nine out of ten of the world’s marine fish stocks have been fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted. Only a third of our planet’s rainforests remain intact. These forests cover only six percent of earth’s surface, yet they harbor 50% of our planet’s biodiversity.

I couldn’t have imagined three decades ago that half of the Great Barrier Reef would now be dead. In fact, warming ocean waters and acidification due to carbon dioxide uptake have bleached half of the world’s reefs. Having a history of such ecological disasters should tell us that the earth’s biodiversity is not boundless. Human activity can cause changes on a global scale. The onslaught is all around us and yet, for the most part, we go merrily on our way.

Is the story of the pangolin anything other than the latest chapter in a long and continuing history of human avarice, ignorance, and absence of concern for the world our children will inherit? It sorrows me to think of a world in which my great-grandchildren might never see a monarch butterfly, may never have the chance to see an elephant in the wild, might never know the wonder of snorkeling over a pristine coral reef.

Given our historical track record, I find it exceedingly difficult to muster hope that we will avoid catastrophic damage to our planet’s biosphere. This is beyond tragic for two reasons. First, our survival depends upon the many so-called ecosystem services provided by the natural world. Many of these are strikingly obvious; production of oxygen by marine algae for example. Other evident functions include regulation of global water cycles, recycling of nutrients, and moderation of a climate conducive to our ability to grow food.

But there is another more subtle reason that our attack on the natural world troubles me so. We humans are, as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it, a biological phenomenon . . .  a product of nature ourselves. Right down to the cellular level, there is astounding similarity between us and the other life forms of our world. The very DNA in our genome is an immortal thread connecting us with other living things back through our deep-time, shared evolutionary history.

When we forget our biological origins, we have lost a major portion of what makes us human. The amnesia of our relationship to other living organisms makes it all too easy to justify the destruction of these, our fellow planetary voyagers. Greed, wealth inequality, and our insatiable quest for material goods then drive our destructive course. Our inability to control our own numbers and the resultant exponential growth in earth’s human population exacerbate biodiversity loss. In the end we seem quite prepared to use the earth’s resources, living and non-living, to the bitter finish.

Disconnected from our biological roots, we are no longer fully human. We are automatons, mere robots. We plod unthinkingly onward, blind to the wonder of the Creation all around us. Forgotten in this disengagement is our intimate interconnectedness with earth’s web of life. Could this lie at the heart of much of the social unrest and dysfunction that seems to bedevil us in these times?

We Homo sapiens have lived in small, hunter-gatherer or agrarian societies for over 90% of our existence. During this time we knew intimately natures’ seasons and progressions, the monthly march of the constellations through the night skies, the secretive ways of our furred and feathered brethren. Has the rapid conversion to highly populated, more crowded cultures come too quickly? Have the behavioral norms and societal interactions we developed in small, closely related communal groups been overwhelmed? Is there a correspondence between today’s gathering in societies that are often bewilderingly complex and the host of social and environmental maladies we now experience? If they are not, it seems a rather peculiar series of coincidences.

In 1851 Henry David Thoreau said that, in wildness is the preservation of the world. More and more frequently, I feel I am witness to evidence of how exceedingly prophetic his observation was.


* data from the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group

** Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. Oxford Univ. Press

*** An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms. Harper & Row. New York


Photo Credits:

Malayan pangolin by the author.

Pangolin scales seized in Hong Kong by Anthony Wallace @ Getty Images

Pangolin cultural attachments chart by Lori Bentley @ oxpeckers.org

Pangolin on a menu in Vietnam by Dan Challender @ IUCN.org

Bison skulls awaiting industrial processing. Detroit Public Library @ commons.wikimedia.org

Passenger pigeon shoot in Louisiana. Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News @ commons.wikimedia.org

Martha the passenger pigeon by Enno Meyer @ commons.wikimedia.org


38. Sitting on the Beach, Thinking About the Fermi Paradox

Yes, I realize that most people sitting along a Florida shore while idly gazing upon the Gulf of Mexico might have other thoughts on their mind – dinner plans perhaps, where one might venture on tomorrow’s fishing excursion, who might be conscripted to go fetch another glass of wine. But I must confess. My world, to paraphrase SNL’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer character, is more often than not a strange one and much prone to wandering off into the fantastical.

But what a wonderful evening it is! By the reckoning, of my raised hand, sunset is about 45 minutes away. Low on the western horizon and now obscured by cloud, the muted orb has turned the brilliant, azure water of this afternoon into a dark, leaden gray. The clouds themselves are now beginning to transmute themselves into a glorious array of oranges, yellows, reds, and violets. It looks to be yet another breathtakingly gorgeous sunset in this paradisiacal little corner of the world. A gentle breeze wafts in from the sea carrying with it that strange, indecipherable odor born of saltwater, fish, clam, and the other cryptic elements lurking out there in the deep. I am mindful and acknowledge my good fortune in being able to sit here, pinot noir in hand, granted the time and means to do so by a benevolent Grace.

Modest waves lap the shoreline before me. Doubtless, on this particular evening, there are many others along this shore who share the calming, meditative effect of this endless surf. How many times has this beach been struck by the incoming waves over the past hours, days, millennia? There is a feeling of timelessness about the sea; so mystifying it is, so vast, the bearer of so many secrets. How could one sit here and not be mesmerized?

Along the shoreline spread before me, marches a procession of avian actors. Sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, and willets are the main participants in this evening’s entertaining parade. Earlier a stately great blue heron joined the crowd. The heron lazily hunted by locating a surf fisherman and loafing nearby patiently awaiting a handout. Offshore brown pelicans and common terns are joined by cormorants and the occasional osprey, all actively searching for a fishy dinner. All in all, it is a lovely tableau in which I am privileged to find myself immersed.

Longboat Key is indeed a heavenly spot for removing oneself from the rigors of a cold, mirthless, muddy Indiana winter. Having come here to achieve this escape for 20 years now, the place is as familiar and cozy as well-worn slippers. Longboat Key is lovely beyond imagining. Gulf of Mexico Drive, the main byway, is landscaped with what seems to be every species of palm known to man. There are royal palms, Canary Island date palms, traveler’s palms, silver palms, cabbage palms, and coconut palms. Each has its characteristically identifiable leaf or trunk pattern. Adjacent lawns are flawlessly groomed, their bordering hedges of sea grape dutifully watered by automated irrigation systems. Upon the street itself one will find nothing to mar the loveliness of the place. No gum wrappers, no cigarette butts, no thoughtlessly tossed aluminum cans are allowed to disgrace the thoroughfare’s manicured elegance.

The municipality has thoughtfully provided bike paths and sidewalks along this main street. They are busy morning to night with riders, walkers, canine companions, and rollerbladers. Golfers navigate the elegantly landscaped layouts of the Longboat Key Club. The layout’s fairways are delineated by gracefully arching palms and live oaks, the greens protected by artistically placed traps of brilliant white sand. These are meant to attract the eye as well as the errant shot. There are parks where one may bird, fish, play tennis or pickleball, picnic, or otherwise while away the day in pursuit of fitness, an abiding calm, or a lovely view. Restaurants beckon one to sit under the stately palms and enjoy the singularly delicious, freshly-cut seafood for which Florida is famous. Yes, all in all, there is little doubt as to why I look forward to a yearly escape to this little piece of paradise.

But, as I have described, the Key is a place where the mind has time to work too. This evening I find my thoughts becoming troubled. I cannot help but recognize that Longboat Key, and its neighboring islets, are perfect examples of the human ability to drastically modify the natural world to suit our desires. Our species is quite clever, there is no doubt. But this cleverness coupled with that power to transform the earth has had extremely dire consequences. Moving with the inertia of a ponderous glacier, our incessant desire for development and “progress” has transfigured the natural world I cherish. And thus the Fermi Paradox suddenly comes to mind.

In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi was discussing recent UFO reports with some colleagues. Naturally, their conversation turned to the possibility of extraterrestrial, intelligent life forms. Given that the Universe contains billions of galaxies each with further hundreds of billions of stars, they thought it highly likely that many of these stars were orbited by planets (an observation now being confirmed in the 21st century). Agreeing that many of these stars and planets were much, much older than our solar system, the scientists speculated it likely that intelligent, technologically advanced life may have already developed elsewhere in the Universe.

Such intelligent ET’s would have had sufficient time to develop intergalactic space travel (Even now, here on Earth, we are beginning to dip our toes into the celestial seas). Thus, there should have been plenty of time for these advanced life forms, or their probes, to have visited Earth. At this point in the conversation Fermi asked the big question: If all this is true where are they? In other words, isn’t it paradoxical for the Universe to contain scores of advanced civilizations and for us to have received no form of evidence of the fact?

Fermi’s question was a good one and it has subsequently yielded many possible answers. Maybe any form of extraterrestrial life is extremely rare, perhaps even nonexistent. It is possible that intelligent life is even more rare or has not evolved at all. Could it be that natural events, similar to earth’s Chicxulub Asteroid, periodically erase life from other planets before advanced intelligence and technology have a chance to germinate? Maybe the intelligent life forms inhabiting other worlds simply haven’t developed the engineering science needed for long distance, long-term travel to other parts of the Universe. There are many other hypothetical answers to this question.

But it is one particular speculation regarding this absence of evidence that is a worrisome occupant of my thoughts as I lounge upon these golden sands this evening. It has also been suggested that we have had no evidence of extraterrestrial, intelligent, technologically advanced civilizations simply because such societies tend to eliminate themselves from existence. They do so long before they develop the ability to travel to other star systems. The suggested means of such self-destruction are many: global nuclear war, natural resource depletion, overpopulation leading to rapid transmission of an untreatable pandemic disease, technologically induced catastrophic climate change. Ill-conceived and eventually harmful advances in biotechnology or artificial intelligence or accidental environmental contamination on a global scale are other possibilities. Some of these possibilities sound eerily familiar don’t they?

The late Sebastian van Hoerner, a physicist, believed that human progress on earth was driven by the combination of a desire for domination and our want of an easy life. We need only look to history in order to verify the human proclivity for dominating other races, nationalities, or ethnic groups outside our own; whatever that may be. My little barrier island paradise – once covered by mangrove, live oak, gumbo limbo, and red cedar – also seems a frighteningly accurate snapshot of our incessant commitment to the domination of nature as well. Residing here would certainly seem to fit van Hoerner’s image of the life of comfort.

Unfortunately the results of our inventive march to what we perceive as progress have, during just my lifetime, come to rear their ugly heads. More than seventy-five percent of the earth’s land surfaces have been altered significantly by human works (www.nationalgeographic.com). The next time you are up in an airplane notice, as you look downward, how difficult it is to find a piece of land that does not bear some mark of human works. Over 1000 documented species extinctions have occurred in the last 500 years. Another one million plant and animal species are under threat of extinction today. Eighty-five percent of global wetlands have been lost in the past three centuries. Science warns that we are on the verge of a so-called “insect apocalypse”; an event some might unthinkingly hail but which, in reality, would be devastating for earth’s ecosystems (as well as human agriculture). Fifty percent of living coral reefs have disappeared in the past two centuries*. Seventy to eighty percent of the world’s fisheries are at maximum usage and on the verge of collapse. Plastic waste equivalent to a garbage truck dumped every minute has made its way into the world’s oceans**. The resultant breakdown of such material yields microplastics. These have already entered food chains having humans at the top trophic level.

It is quite possible that my great-grandchildren will be able to enjoy the coastal Florida I have known only by one day cruising above it in a boat. Earth’s human population is approaching eight billion, more than double the number it was when I graduated from high school five decades ago. It is projected to reach ten billion by the year 2050. Surely it is irrational to believe that standing room only is a workable, future possibility. This ecological overshoot of the human population is at the heart of the environmental problems which now plague us. These are the by-products of the biotic potential and insidious cleverness of our species.

My point is this. The catalog of environmental ills affecting our planet (and I haven’t even mentioned the societal dysfunctions we see now) seem disturbingly familiar. Do they not sound much like one of the conjectural answers to the Fermi Paradox? Are not the environmental problems we face now much like those speculated upon as mechanisms whereby an alien civilization might radically alter or even eliminate itself? Could this hypothesis, so abstract at its foundation, really be a concrete warning that we need to change course here on our home world?

And so, perhaps, you may discern why my ruminations are uneasy in spite of my lovely surroundings. But here is the thing that is most worrisome to me. Regardless of my life-long love of wild things and wild places, irrespective of my sense of looming catastrophe, I really like it here in this little artificial world. For all the reasons I have given you, I find Longboat Key a place of serenity, loveliness, and relaxation. In spite of my awareness of the dependence of human kind upon maintaining the health of our natural world, I look forward to my yearly visits to this little, man-made Eden.

So, I am left to ponder. Can we, as a civilization continue to develop and enjoy indulgences such as this tiny key without irreparable harm to our planet? Are we on the verge of irreversible environmental damage born of our own too much? Is it simply through seeking a life marked by technological progress and added comfort – simply by living – that we might eventually trigger a cascade of ill-effects which could doom human society?

I believe the answers to these questions are known. Undoubtedly there are ways in which we might sustainably relieve the stress human society places upon our only planetary home. The real question is: do we have the foresight, good sense, and willpower to do so?


*Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future. Frontiers in Conservation Science. January, 2021. Bradshaw et. Al.


Photo Credits:

Longboat Key aerial at wwwvisitflorida.com

the Andromeda Galaxy at wikimediacommons.org

biodiversity loss chart at wikiwand.com

ocean plastic pollution at pri.org

human population graph by Bdm at wikimediacommons.org

all other photos by the author

37. The Mountains Are Calling and I Must Go

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Thus spoke John Muir back in 1883. Feeling this same emotional tug, off to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado Anne and I did go. As flat-landers born and raised in the Wabash River valley of Indiana, I’ve often wondered about the source of the mystical pull the mountain west now seems to exert upon us with alarming frequency.

Our rural Indiana country does have its charms. The deciduous forests, spring and fall in particular, are lovely. There are lakes and streams to float, fish, and admire. But we sure have our share of corn and soy beans too. Indiana has been pretty much tamed I’m afraid. And there are oodles of people here too, about 48 per square mile. Granted, this is nearly the same demographic as when I was in high school back in the ‘60’s but it is downright crowded compared to the average of four people per square mile in the Rockies. The relative wildness, the solitude, the separation from routine worries, a softness not marred by unnatural sounds could all be reasons an escape to the mountains is so appealing. Yes, “nature’s peace will flow into you . . ..”

We always eagerly anticipate arising that first morning in the mountains. Certainly there is excited expectancy for the adventures to come. But there is also the palpable, physical reality of being in the high country. It is marked by that first breath, scented heavily with the fragrance of pine, spruce, and fir. It is the sensation of a dry, chilled, crystal-clear mountain air upon the face as one first steps outside the cabin. It is the vision of a sky rendered so stunning that one is left to ponder just what the correct word might be for a blue so deep, so splendidly beautiful. Here are more reasons we often hear the mountain’s call I suspect.

Another charm offered within the mountains is their boulder-strewn, rushing streams. Singing their melodies with roaring abandon, they plunge downward seeming disgruntled at having to wait for their rendezvous with the great seas. Why does the rush of water over stone mesmerize us so? Does their roaring overpower other sounds and, like an isolation booth, allow our thoughts to turn undistractedly and reflectively inward? Is it the one hundred fascinating pathways the water charts through its stony bed that enthralls us? Here the water plunges over a hidden boulder and forms a miniature standing wave just downstream. There the water is forced through a tiny passage between two stones and warbles its displeasure at this fruitless attempt to be held back. In another spot, the water flows over a ledge and forms a curtain of watery icicles, white and yet as translucent as crystal they are.

I see a shadowy form lurking in the pool below this curtain. A cutthroat trout perhaps? The presence of this icon of the mountain stream reminds me that such freely running waters are not just beautiful; they are home to a plethora of unique species. Yes, I would say a mountain stream helped draw John Muir westward as surely as it lures us today.

Of course one must get out of the car while visiting the mountains; there is hiking to be done. To become truly infected with the bug that drives a person back into the heights again and again, these domains must be experienced through close contact. But be forewarned, some of this interaction will require work. Hiking in the mountains will, as one might suspect, require that substantial time be spent climbing upwards. The Rockies, Cascades, Santa Catalinas, and Wasatch ranges have all tested our endurance. Truth be known, there are times when I wonder whether or not I am having fun. There are stretches of trail where the walk is reduced to simply, mechanically putting one foot in front of the other. But then, at the end of a taxing climb, I find myself staring out at an alpine panorama such as Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park and it all seems so worthwhile. Admittedly, our hike may have encompassed what others might consider a short jaunt of five or six miles. Nevertheless, now well into our 70’s, perhaps allowing ourselves a small, self-congratulatory pat on the back is justified. The testing of one’s limits, the sense of accomplishment at the end of a tough slog are further rewards offered by the highlands. They are likely another reason we hear the mountain’s siren call.


As a zoologist, the mountains offer another realm of possibilities. There are creatures here not to be seen in the low, flat, lands back home. The mountains offer a visual feast for anyone with an interest in wildlife watching. The higher altitudes may yield the sight of a bighorn sheep. The strength and agility whereby they navigate the steepest slopes and tiniest ledges defies imagination. The mule deer around Estes Park, handsome and in their prime, quite accommodatingly offer themselves as photo subjects by grazing along the roadsides. Be alert! They can as easily decide that the grass is greener across the way.

A hike in Rocky Mountain National Park provides a new cast of squirrel actors in comparison to our Indiana home. Pine squirrels, or chickarees, are common. They seem to be constantly at work harvesting conifer seeds or storing cones for the winter in their distinctive midden piles. Golden-mantled ground squirrels dart across the trail in their quest for seeds with which to build the fat reserves that will see them through the long, cold winter ahead. The smallest RMNP squirrel is the least chipmunk. Agile and prone to sudden darting movements, these little rodents have also mastered the art of mooching around picnic areas. Their innate “cuteness” makes denying them a snack a tough decision. But, they do need to rely on their natural diet of seeds, fruits, and insects. Although we think of them as a “ground squirrel”, least chipmunks will quite happily ascend into an elderberry and dine on the ripe, red berries to be found there.

September’s biggest show is the elk rut, now at its peak during this month and the next. The park provides innumerable opportunities to simply sit and watch the fascinating by-play. There are dominant bulls striving to maintain their harems. Bachelor bulls lurk on the periphery and contemplate stealing a mate for themselves from among the comely herd. Some bulls, nearing prime adulthood, weigh their odds as they consider challenging an older male and thus usurping his harem. All in all, the spectacle may provide hours of entertainment and requires little besides binoculars, a desire to learn, and a willingness to engage with another species. Being presented with one’s own, personal Animal Planet show is yet another reason to heed the mountain’s call.

Naturally, given the vast differences in altitude and habitat between home and the Rockies, there are plenty of opportunities to encounter a variety of less familiar birds. Steller’s and gray jays are typical members of the mountain’s avifauna. Quite a few of them seem to have learned that hanging about a picnic table is an easy way to make a living. Black-billed magpies seem to be everywhere and could serve as avian representatives of the northwest. Occasionally one may even see a totally new species which can be added to one’s so-called life list. Such was our luck on this trip when we spotted an American three-toed woodpecker busily working away at the trunk of a dead pine. I suppose this particular bird may have, over time, been spotted by an army of previous hikers. But for us it was new and represented yet another small sweetener offered by a jaunt into the mountains.

On our list of “must see” animals this time was the pika. After many excursions to the mountains and an equal number of failed attempts to see this fascinating little mammal, we were determined. A query to a park ranger immediately put a damper on our hopes. ” Yes,” he could recommend a good spot to see them but, “the tail end of September might be too late.” The cold temperature at their high-altitude home may have driven them to permanent winter shelter already. Remaining hopeful, we headed up Trail Ridge Road to a spot called the Rock Cut Overlook. Here, at this high elevation, there were talus slopes. Such inclines are composed of a jumble of rocks of various sizes which have fallen and accumulated at the base of a cliff or steep slope. Among these rock piles thrives the pika.

What a fascinating lifestyle these little (6”-8”) relatives of rabbits and hares live. During warm weather they cut grasses and wildflowers and lay them upon the talus rocks to sun-dry. Once dehydrated, this hay is carried down under the rocks to their den. Here it is stored for winter use as their home may become snow-covered and too cold to venture out.

Arriving at Rock Cut we donned extra layers of clothes, gloves, toboggan and ventured out onto the Tundra Community Trail. What a harsh landscape we encountered. The tree line rested well below us as we trod along at 12,178 ft. above sea level. Here was a hard-scrabble world of short grasses, lichen-covered rocks, and relentless wind. During the winter, icy blasts of over 100 mph can occur. Today’s wind gusted to 30 mph and easily penetrated our four layers of upper clothing. The temperature felt like 25F rather than the balmy 75F the folks down below in Estes Park were enjoying. I could only imagine the harshness of the winter at these heights. The thought left me incredulous that living organisms could eke out an existence up here.

In spite of the cold, we were in luck. A sudden darting scramble caught our eye and there, thirty yards away, perched atop a talus rock was a pika. Facing downwind, its fur rustled in the gusty breeze allowing the cold breeze to penetrate to its skin. The pika quickly decided the den was a much better place to be today. But at least we had cast eyes upon our elusive quarry.

Of course we were unsatisfied with such a brief glimpse of our target animal and we came back two days later. Luck was with us and we saw more of the little lagomorphs. With warmer, less windy conditions they sunned themselves atop their rock perches within mere feet of us. Another gift had been bestowed upon us by the mountains. I hope my grandchildren’s children may one day chase the dream of seeing a pika. On a warming planet their habitat is under threat. If their mountain-tundra world is heated and transformed, where will they go? Already living at 12,000 feet, they can’t move much higher.

Reflecting upon our recent trip to the Rockies has given me insight into the source of John Muir’s infatuation with the mountains. The mountains do offer their good tidings. These come in the form of unsurpassed scenic beauty, blissful solitude, and close encounters with the denizens of these high worlds, fellow passengers on our precious, blue, island of life. The wind will blow its own freshness into you. It carries within its breath the aroma of pine, the scent of rushing waters, a hint of wildness untrammeled by man. Nature’s peace will flow into you. Cares will drop off like autumn leaves. Yes, now that I think of it, it’s high time we started planning our next journey into the mountains







36. A Natural History of Sounds

     There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities, no place to hear the leaves of spring or the rustle of insects’ wings. Perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand, but the clatter only seems to insult the ears.

Chief Seattle

The more we exile ourselves from nature, the more we crave its miracle waters.

Diane Ackerman

These are turbulent times in which we live. A pandemic disease has many of us fearful of visiting even close friends and relatives. Our federal government appears to be in a state of dysfunction more often than not. Right, left, and in-between seem to constantly be at one another’s throats. Conspiracy theories often carry more weight than verifiable data. It is all downright discouraging.

But there is a panacea. I am fortunate; all I must do to receive this remedy is step outside. Admittedly this therapy may not be permanent. But it can be at least a temporary escape from all that is folly and this treatment can be taken over and over again. There are no undesirable side effects. I am speaking of the little dramas and comforting sounds provided by the natural world. They are reminders that my worries, stressors, and fears are but interludes in the larger symphony. Playing unabated and undiminished in the background, this opus offers us a chance to pull away from our anxieties and re-center ourselves.

As I write, it is now July. Likely I could be put into a time machine, shuffled forward and backward a few times and, when I emerged, still recognize late summer in Indiana. Common tree katydids, dusk-singing cicadas, snowy tree crickets, and other orthopterans provide a daily chorus of communicative racket. They remind me that the imperative to establish territory, find a mate, and persevere as a species beyond the cold winter to come is a powerful drive among the small, six-legged critters of the world too. I dare say the urge is every bit as potent as it is among head-butting bison or antler-entangled deer.

Admittedly, I once reacted with dread to the onset of the clicking, buzzing, and vibratory rasping of these summer insects. As a teacher it reminded me that my hiatus from ten hour days and high stress levels would soon cease. I loved my profession but who doesn’t relish having time to simply do as one pleases? Happily, I now find the multitudinous chorus performing outside my door to be not only entertaining but quite beautiful (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wua2tULh84).

August will be here soon. The insect choirs will continue for a while of course. The evenings will offer the exquisite sound of wood thrushes calling from the forest just beyond my lawn (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-22ZuQyAJ4). The hot, still days will be punctuated by the hollow-wooden cowlp, cowlp, cowlp, cowlp calls of a yellow-billed cuckoo. Likely the author of these sounds will be well-hidden and skulking about in the patch of woods to the west of the house. (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Yellow-billed_Cuckoo/sounds). Other August sounds bring me memories of childhood. The plaintive trill of a field sparrow bouncing to its conclusion carries me back to the hot days of summer when I roamed the oldfields around home in search of adventure (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Field_Sparrow/sounds).

September is a lovely month. There are finally some equable evenings and more moderate days to enjoy. But plunked down here in southwestern Indiana, I cannot prevent my mind from wandering westward. The foothills of Rocky Mountain National Park or the lodgepole pine forests of Yellowstone exert a pull that is tangible. For I know it is in such places that the bull elk are into their rut. I had long wanted to hear their fantastical bugling for myself. As soon as I found myself free in this month, I went in search. What a strange, far-carrying, high-pitched sound I found issuing from such a large animal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYzWmKlZtrU). Nowadays, I can listen to a recording of the bugling of an elk and find myself transported to another land. The smell of pine upon the air, the solitude of wilderness, the chill of a clear mountain morning, the distant clack of opposing antlers sounding from somewhere within the forested slope up above – all these reside within the bull’s weirdly wonderful bellow.

October brings its own enchantments. Now the nights are not just cool but may bring the chance for frost. Migrations are well under way for most bird species and for the next couple of months a rich smorgasbord of avian sounds may be encountered. I now have the good fortune to live less than ten miles from a 9000 acre wetland restoration known as Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area. Following its establishment in 2005, wetland and grassland birds of many species followed the now familiar axiom of “build it and they will come.”

A visit to this area in late summer or early fall allows one to be serenaded with the vocalizations of waterfowl and shorebirds by the thousands. They use the property to rest and fuel up for the journeys ahead. Some may go no further than the southern U.S. but others are in the midst of migratory journeys of epic proportions. I was astounded when I first learned that among the sojourners was a bird known as the Hudsonian godwit. (www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Hudsonian_Godwit/sounds) Why? It is simply this; few other birds embark on flights as monumental as does this nine ounce avian marvel. The godwits at Goose Pond are thought to be arriving from eastern Alaska or northwestern Canada. Are they making the flight to SW Indiana nonstop? I do not know for sure. It is known that they are quite capable of such feats. Hudsonian godwits have been tracked making an uninterrupted, five day flight of some 3900 miles from Hudson Bay, Canada to the Orinoco River basin of Venezuela. Their eventual destination is southern Chile, some ten thousand miles from their breeding grounds. Is this the destination of our Goose Pond godwits? Quite likely it is. And the mere thought of such a feat of physical endurance and navigational shrewdness leaves me flabbergasted.

November can be a bit of a downer here in Indiana. Gray, dull skies, yielding days without sunshine and cold rains are recollections that come to my mind. But there is an entertaining trade-off; the lingering waterfowl provide a near-daily concert meant to lighten my mood. The flocks of geese, which nightly roost in the wetland to the east, make daily passages over my house. They are heading to, and from, the waste grain bonanza lying in the harvested fields of the Wabash River bottoms to the west.

Canada geese are commonly seen. Years ago, when I was a youngster, our family would take excited note of these birds as they passed overhead. In the fall, flocks heading southward served notice that the warm, pleasant days of summer were soon to be replaced by cold, blustery winds. In March, the sound of Canada geese forging northward in ‘V’ after ‘V’ caused us to bolt from the house and take a look skyward. Harbingers of spring they were, welcome messengers announcing that a break from cold, sleet, and snow was nearly upon us.

These days hardly anyone takes special notice of Canada geese unless to complain that they are fouling lawns or fairways. Many of them no longer migrate but remain here in the Midwest year round. Mild winters, the aforementioned agricultural fields, and an abundance of lakes which seldom freeze over for long mean their long annual trips are no longer necessary.

Recently some other players have joined the cast providing the daily entertainment proffered me by the goose clan. The formations passing over my house are now more frequently comprised of greater white-fronted geese. Their high pitched, yelping calls allow me to hear them approaching from a distance and bear little resemblance to the deep honks of their Canadian cousins (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Greater_White-fronted_Goose/sounds).

Of late, snow geese have taken to forming winter aggregations at Goose Pond. Later in the year, they will linger and rest there by the tens of

thousands. Their dispersal flights from the wetland are a thing to behold as echelon after echelon climb away and pass into the distance. At my place their high, nasal honks fill the air as they eagerly speed overhead bound for the bottomland corn fields to the west https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Snow_Goose/sounds).

I give a silent thanks to the goose species passing above me. They lighten the gloomy November skies with a reminder that the rhythms of nature still persist. Their calls and massed numbers are also proof that wildlife spectacles happen not just on TV but right around us, if we will only look.

These birds prompt me to recall the delightful observation conservationist Aldo Leopold made regarding our good fortune in hearing the conversation of geese overhead. As he watched Canada geese pass northward over his Wisconsin farmstead in the spring, he observed that, “. . . in this annual barter of food for light, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March.”

Now, what to make of December? Here is a verse from Thomas Parson’s poem recognizing this month.

You are calm,
You allow me to slow,
To envelope the tranquility I crave.

The month seems a quiet one to me too. A good book and a hot cup of tea sound appropriate. Outside my window, nature has slowed too. I may see a white-tailed deer looking gray and showing its ribs wander by, pausing occasionally to nibble at a tree bud. It looks like mighty tough going out there.

Unlike the clamorous months that have just passed, the world seems to have gone strangely silent. Much of my December amusement from Mother Nature now comes in the form of the many woodpecker species inhabiting my woods. Shunning the warmth of more southern climes, they stick it out through the challenging winter. Utilizing their uncanny ability to detect insects and their larvae hidden within the woody tissue of the many diseased or dead trees around me, they persevere with admirable fortitude. They are a very busy bunch indeed.

My favorite is the pileated woodpecker. Strikingly huge (the size of a crow) with equally conspicuous plumage, they seem a good candidate for King of Woodpeckers. Their call rings loudly through the barren, otherwise somber forest. The wedge-shaped cavities they chop into trees are equally impressive due to their large size. Yes, I am quite happy to have pileated woodpeckers as close neighbors. They much enliven an otherwise quiet December (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/sounds).

January usually brings some visitors from the north. I see several sparrow species that have been absent since last winter. Fox sparrows, tree sparrows, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows work busily under my bird feeders. Dark-eyed juncos are here now too. Snowbirds my grandparents used to call them. The occasional yellow-bellied sapsucker joins the woodpecker fraternity that makes my woods their home.

These days I am fortunate enough to make my own migration. Heading south, we set our GPS for the “Nature Coast” of western Florida. Here, for a few weeks, we can forget the cold winds and leaden skies of winter-time Indiana. A favored sound here is the high-pitched, piping, whistle of the osprey (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Osprey/sounds). What fun it is to watch them patrolling the Chasshowitzka, Homosassa, or Crystal Rivers in search of their piscine prey. There are brown pelicans to watch as they wheel and plunge-dive for fish themselves. American white pelicans are here too. I wonder if I have seen any of these individuals at Goose Pond as, earlier in the year, they migrated southeast from their summer home in the northern Great Plains.

Of course there are many other distractions. Manatees congregate in the warmer freshwater springs of the area. Gopher tortoises and armadillos patrol the pines and scrub of the Withlacoochee State Forest. All in all it is, for Hoosier eyes, an exotic show that is provided by this brief winter escape to the subtropics.


An Indiana February, in spite of the continued cold weather, is a month with much merit for the naturalist. Although spring is technically weeks away, the first signs that nature is beginning to stir come this month. According to my field notes, mid-February is often heralded by the first, tentative, often feeble calls of the chorus frogs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzePgnIpUuk). Surely, I think to myself, the icy grip of winter must be easing if these tiny singers can manage to advertise their re-emergence into the world.

There is action overhead too. Arriving a couple of weeks earlier than they did just a few years ago, come phalanx after phalanx of sandhill cranes. If I had to choose a bird species which above all others evokes wildness by voice alone, I should have to choose the call of these birds. How wild and far-carrying their rattling, bugling voice is (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpTykjLYYr0). Often times I search in vain for the source of these ancient, mesmerizing sounds coming from somewhere overhead. They are often too high, too far away for me to locate. Although unseen, their calls hang upon the air as if the biosphere itself was gifted with the ability to speak.

Their speech represents an exceptional story of conservation success. Once nearly extirpated east of the Mississippi, there are now almost 100,000 sandhill cranes in their eastern population. An evening spent just before sunset at Goose Pond FWA is an event to be recommended. The sight of thousands of sandhill cranes returning to their evening roost and filling the air with their announcements of arrival will, I guarantee, stir even the stodgiest soul.

In March, the average daytime temperature has reached 530F and even the nights are often above freezing. I abhor the cold more and more with each passing year, what a relief this is. The wildlife around my rural home respond too. Red-shouldered and Cooper’s hawks seem to find my little stand of timber to their liking as a nesting area. Both species are raucous and enthusiastic vocalizers and fill the day with their loud territorial and courtship calls (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-shouldered_Hawk/sounds /).


We have owls too and their vocalizations continue in March. The hooting of great-horned owls issues forth from our woods and is shortly answered by a neighbor across the road to the north (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/sounds). “This is my spot says one. OK, but this is my spot over here,” says the other. Barred owls entertain us with their familiar “who cooks for you” call (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/sounds).

For some time, after moving to our house in the woods, we were puzzled by a night sound of exquisite eeriness. Our grandchildren were quite terrified by the creepiness of the calls we heard. But we eventually all agreed that we must go out into the pitch-black night and try to discover the source of our trepidation. The next time we heard the strange high-pitched call, which seemed to rise in pitch and then abruptly stop we armed ourselves with flashlights and ventured out. The voice was cryptically difficult to locate but we eventually traced it to a small redbud tree along the edge of our lawn. Shining our lights into the tree revealed the culprit –a barred owl (https://us.napster.com/artist/cornell-lab-of-ornithology/album/voices-of-north-american-owls-vol-2/track/barred-owl-female-solicitation-call). Our curiosity satisfied and our disquiets allayed, the grandkids and we can now listen with tranquility to the eerily strange solicitation call issuing from the nocturnal woodlands.

April, with its influx of returning migratory birds, offers a daily increase in participants joining the avian chorus outside the door. The morning chorus and warming temperatures are bound to lift one’s spirits after a long winter. But I am also heartened by the increasing number of amphibians adding their “two cents worth” to the chorale that is springtime Indiana. As noted, the chorus frogs got an early start. They were soon joined by wood frogs and spring peepers. Now, in April, I begin to also notice the voices of leopard frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs, gray tree frogs, and Fowler’s toads.

Just over a rise behind the house lies our neighbor’s pond. It isn’t long after the weather begins to really warm that my evenings will be enhanced by the pleasant buzzing of the countless Fowler’s toads which congregate there (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezHxi2DEHOE). From now throughout much of the remainder of the summer, their odd falsetto bleats will provide palliative background music for a meditative sit on the front porch. The mating calls of bullfrogs will soon join the toad chorus (www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaP9cac3cPI). Their booming expressions reverberate across the wetlands reminding all who can hear that they are indeed the biggest frog in the puddle.

Come April, Anne and I will be enjoyably distracted by gray tree frogs which love to perch on our patio doors at night. How they seem to instinctively know that porch lights attract insects is a mystery to me. But, there they are; hovering just beyond the lights ready to gulp down any passing midge or bug that makes the mistake of landing near them. Gray tree frogs are of two species, the eastern gray treefrog and Cope’s gray treefrog. They are differentiated by voice and it is mostly the latter which hangs around our home. Little snatches of song emanating from the surrounding trees are steady reminders of their presence out beyond our doors and windows (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96W0crcrb_s).

One note of warning; I occasionally must relocate gray treefrogs who seem to love hiding under our outdoor grill cover. Once, after doing so, I proceeded to unthinkingly rub my eyes. The immediate result was a feeling akin to a shot of mild pepper to the face. Many amphibians have toxic skin secretions which protect them from predators. So does the gray treefrog I found.

May is a highly anticipated month at our house. We eagerly await the arrival of a migrant who will provide hours of free entertainment for the next few months. While its vocalizations are neither highly melodic nor exceptional, the physical abilities, agility, acrobatic mating displays, and sheer beauty of the ruby-throated hummingbird are second to none (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-throated_Hummingbird/sounds). Although we usually try to anticipate their arrival by having feeders ready, these tiny motes of energy sometimes surprise us. We have, on a couple of occasions, awoken to find a hungry, early arrival hovering outside our bedroom window. Peering inside, it seems to be suggesting quite clearly “Hey, get your lazy butts out of bed and get that sugar water out here!”

June is a favored month. Some dependably warm weather brings an invitation to get outside. There is gardening, mowing, weeding and a hundred other chores to be done. I can cut back on trips to the gym; there will be lots of exercise from now until the frosty days of late fall.

There is a sound I associate from childhood with this pleasant, verdant month too. Sadly, it is a voice that is much less common than it once was. I speak of the clear, unmistakable call of the bobwhite. When I was a youngster, the voice of this little quail was an ever-present component of life outside the house. Whether it was the high-pitched territorial “bob-white” or the melodic covey call used to group and stay in contact, their vocalizations were as fixed and familiar as the sun traversing the June sky https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Bobwhite/sounds. Sadly, years of habitat loss and fragmentation have caused their numbers to plummet by as much as 70-90%. Recently a covey near home comprised of nine birds flushed before me. I realized it was one of the larger I had seen in a while. But I also recognized it as a pitiful fraction of the numbers I encountered as a boy. I recall encountering coveys decades ago that often numbered 40 or 50 birds.

Today the bobwhite is masquerading as a canary in our coal mine I’m afraid. I’m equally certain of two other things. The decline of the bobwhite in our time is permanent and sadly enough, most people won’t even notice the difference.

So, there you have it. You have seen one way in which I measure my year; one avenue for escaping the mind-disturbing inanities and frustrations of life in today’s world. These are months filled with gratitude at being able to still hear the persistent, calming melody of the Creation.

The ancestors of the katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers calling outside my window appear as fossils in Pennsylvanian aged rock formed from sediments laid down 300 million years ago. It comforts me to connect with earth’s deep history through listening to Nature. In this way, I am reminded that in an age of pandemics, inane politicians, personal and societal decisions abetted by scientific illiteracy, the natural world still plugs along. It has done so for a span of time that is incomprehensibly long. Nature will continue to do so in spite of the chaos and communal dysfunction which now seem to characterize our species, Homo sapiens.

The sounds and dramas of the natural world soothe us. They reconnect and re-center us emotionally. They do so by reminding us of our lengthy lineage as hunter-gatherers and our innate dependence upon the gifts of the natural world. They should also cause us to deeply reflect upon an observation made by Chief Thomas Rainwater. I paraphrase him here: “If we continue our assault on the planet’s ecosystems, Mother Earth is quite capable of – as a grazing bison might dislodge an annoying fly – simply shrugging us off and going it alone.”

Photo Credits:
wood thrush by Rhododendrites @ commons.wikimedia.org
Hudsonian godwit in Crossley's ID Guide: Eastern Birds
Hudsonian godwit migration map @ ResearchGate.net
Canada goose by Alan D. Wilson @ commons.wikimedia.org
greater white-fronted goose by Ken Conger @ commons.wikimedia.org
snow goose flock by Ray Hennessey @ commons.wikimedia.org
pileated woodpecker by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren @ comm.wiki.org
chorus frog by Ohio Dept. of Nat. Res. @ commons.wikimedia.org
Fowler's toad by Aaron Sather @ commons.wikimedia.org
bobwhite quail by cuatok77 @ commons.wikimedia.org
All Other Photographs by the Author.



35. Not True: An Encounter with Science Denial: Part 2

Part 2: Happy Birthday Ancient Earth

 What then of the age of the earth? Where, within his religion, may my pupil have gotten the idea that the earth is quite young geologically? Does the Bible in fact state that the earth is a relatively young; perhaps only a few thousand years old? Actually, it does not specifically do so. Some scholars have assumed the genealogies of biblical patriarchs to be historically correct. They have then used these lineages to roughly estimate the passage of time since the earth’s creation. In fact, there is an exceedingly long history of attempts to use the Bible to do just that. If one peruses the Internet searching for references to young earth creationism, one will find dozens of mentions of authors who have done so. Such efforts began as early as the second century B.C. and continued at least into the nineteenth century. Estimates of earth’s age based upon various translations of the Bible vary. The date of creation based on the Septuagint is said to be 5500 BC. Using the Samaritan Pentateuch, it is around 4300 BC, and relying upon the Masoretic texts yields a date of 4000 BC. Thus we can see many possible sources in regards to how a scripturally based belief in a six to eight thousand year old earth could have arisen.

However, I have often found that the quest to more rationally or systematically explain the basis for the belief in an earth only a few thousand years of age often leads to one man – James Ussher. Ussher  (1581-1656) was the Anglican Church of Ireland’s Archbishop of Armagh. I must admit to a general tendency to be suspicious of pronouncements of fact from scholars working nearly five hundred years ago. It simply seems reasonable to me to accept the idea that we have made great progress, during the last five centuries, in understanding the workings of the physical and biological world in which we live. As an example, I think most of us, if afflicted with serious disease, would rather go to a 21st century doctor rather than a medieval barber-physician whose first diagnosis might call for a good blood-letting via the application of leeches. Thus, I’ve always been more than skeptical of Ussher’s assertions regarding the age of the earth.

But wait just a darned minute you might argue. Why do we have to jettison scholarly work simply because it was done in the 16th century? What about Copernicus? Didn’t he figure out the heliocentric motion of the planets back in the 1500’s? Didn’t Isaac Newton propose the laws explaining the motion of objects not long after this? What about Galileo Galilei? Didn’t he build a telescope and make the first observations of the moons of Jupiter in the early 17th century? I would have to say yes, all of this is true. I would never dare to suggest that many of the scholars at work during those time periods did not possess true genius. In fact, and this may surprise you, the more I have learned about James Ussher the more I appreciate his work. I simply think that he made some questionable assumptions in trying to precisely date the origin of the earth. It is true that both history and science have proven his 6000 year old earth incorrect; but there is still a bit more about James Ussher that merits consideration.

Brooding upon the rejection of my teaching of the plate tectonics theory, I wanted to know a little more about Archbishop Ussher myself. By all accounts, James Ussher was a man of extreme intelligence. He entered Trinity College in Dublin at age thirteen. At age seventeen, he acquired a bachelor’s degree. He was ordained in the church at twenty-one and by the time he was in his late twenties had become a professor at Trinity College. He was said to be gifted in languages and, during his lifetime, amassed a personal library containing thousands of volumes. His scholarship would be difficult to deny.

The issue that pertains to my discussion, the date of the origin of earth, is presented in Ussher’s 1650 publication of a dissertation entitled Annales veteris testament, a prima mundi origine deducti  or, in English, Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world. This classic work is still available as an English translation from the Latin. In it, Ussher offers a comprehensive historical record of the early world from the creation to 70 AD. However, Ussher’s chronology of the earth’s history, including the date of the origin of life, has been characterized by scientists as wholly inaccurate.

I must admit that as a result of a rather lengthy training in the biological and geological sciences, I had considered Ussher’s work to be of little significance.  However, as I tried to learn more about him, I ran across an article that made me reassess my opinion. In 1991 the late Stephen J. Gould, writing in Natural History magazine, suggested that perhaps we should not be so disdainful of Ussher’s endeavor. Gould pointed out that, given the primitive state of science, such attempts to use the Bible and other ancient texts to deduce the age of the earth’s origins was a common scholastic endeavor. In other words, given the lack of the tools and information we now have at our disposal – such as an increased understanding of stratigraphy, a more complete fossil record, knowledge of radioactivity, the development of radiometric dating techniques, and improved dendrochronological data – how else might academics attack the problem of determining the earth’s history? Other intellectuals of the time (e.g. Johannes Kepler, John Lightfoot, Isaac Newton), who worked on timelines for the earth were trying to do more than just determine the date of creation. In reality, they were attempting to establish a comprehensive chronology of the earth’s history and its historic events by using the Bible and other classical works. In his essay, Fall in the House of Ussher, Gould remarks that perusal of the “Annals of the Old Testament” reveals that only about seventeen percent of the work is biblical. Ussher’s book is available now on the popular Internet site Amazon.com under the title The Annals of the World. I found one reviewer’s comments telling. As if to support Gould’s observation that the book actually contained little biblical material, the reader stated that he assumed the book would give him additional insight into biblical history. It did not; in fact he reported it gave him little specific information about events in the Bible.

So there you have it. A strong argument could be made for cutting Archbishop Ussher (and other biblical chronologists) a little slack in regards to his now much maligned date of creation. For the period, he was doing what we may think of as highly advanced academic research. The date Ussher established for the beginning of creation was, by the way, quite specific. It was Sunday Oct. 23, 4004 B.C.

In order to pinpoint the date of creation, Ussher had to make several rather questionable subjective assumptions. These are well described in Catherine Baker’s The Evolution Dialogs: Science, Christianity and the Quest for Understanding. For example, Ussher reasoned that the creation occurred in autumn since this is a time for the ripening of the fruits of trees. As Adam and Eve were tempted with the eating of such a fruit, the first humans must have been created in the fall season. Ussher also inferred that the creation must have occurred at some significant astronomical period such as equinox or solstice. It was certainly a monumental event; therefore it must have occurred at a noteworthy time he reasoned. Referring to astronomical tables, Ussher found that the nearest Sunday proximate to the equinox in 4004 B.C. was Sunday, Oct. 23rd. The creation actually began, he believed, on the evening of the previous day.

Some have also suggested that the date Ussher imagined might have fed upon his preconceived notion of how old the earth should be. For example, certain biblical passages used by early chronologists (such as 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalms 90:4) suggested to them that a thousand years were but a day to God. In other words, a six day creation could represent an earth of around 6000 years in age. This would fit well if, like Ussher, one was working under the assumption that the Bible was literally correct in every respect.

Much material is available relative to the manner in which Ussher developed his historical chronology. It is voluminous and detailed; I will leave that for you to pursue or not. My point is that Ussher was doing the best he could with the implements at hand. Since Ussher perceived the Bible as historical, he merged information in it with that of other significant written resources: Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman histories for example. As a non-scientist in a pre-scientific world, his efforts produced a product that seemed eminently reasonable for the period.

But that’s just it: for the period. We are talking about the 17th-19th centuries. Why must we continue to accept the work of Ussher, and other such chronologists, as definitive? Why must we use it as a basis, as my fledgling science student did, for rejecting much of the physical knowledge of the earth that we have gained in the past several hundred years? Apparently, for many Christian conservatives, there is a belief that the Bible does indeed specifically state that the earth is 6000 years old. Perhaps the reason that Ussher’s timeline persists as reasonable in the mind of these folks is that, beginning shortly after the publication of his Annals, Ussher’s chronological timeline was printed in the margins of certain bibles. “Up until fairly recently, nearly all printings of the King James Bible included dates in the marginal notes which helped place Biblical events in their chronological context” (from the website of the Institute for Creation Research). I suspect that Ussher’s chronology has thus acquired great power of persuasion through its association with the scriptures. As a result, in the eyes of many, his chronology literally took on the authority of God. Perhaps for some people, to believe otherwise is to open a chink in the armor of their assumed biblical inerrancy. Accepting that the earth is ancient beyond understanding might put one on an oily incline. The next thing you know people will be arguing that nothing in the Bible is true. This, I presume, is the great fear.

It is a fine ethical line one walks as a biology teacher when dealing with student beliefs. I have often wondered whether or not I should have expressed to my doubting student the sadness I experienced. It was a dejection caused by their belief that they had to make a definitive, final choice between science and religion. For you see in my mind, the spectacle and stupendous power of earth’s geologic forces are worthy of awe as well. My understandings of the forces which propel the tectonic plates over the surface of our world fill me with appreciation for the powerful dynamics at work within the cosmos. I feel small and insignificant. I am humbled and put into my place in the scheme of things. The natural is no less than the supernatural, quite capable of generating wonder and reverence.

Then again if I had articulated these ideas to my student, perhaps they would have felt sadness for me; a worshipper of geologic forces instead of a God. But, in reality, I’m not sure we stood so far apart. As a religious naturalist, I accept the belief that there is a creative force responsible for our world and the universe in which we dwell. There is a Force – awesome, mysterious, and unfathomable – which has, over the past fourteen billion years, created a universe and an earth which has become ever more complex and biodiverse. This Force has also created an organism with remarkable inquisitiveness, inventiveness, and intelligence. It is us.

And so the melancholy I felt in my classroom those many years ago stemmed from the following notion. There is no need to cling to ancient philosophies fearing that, if we do not, our beliefs are lost. Just as we evolve biologically, we should evolve culturally as well. We humans test and probe and seek and discover. In the discovery we march forward, gaining an ever-increasing understanding of the world around us. Coming to understand that the earth is not thousands but billions of years old should not frighten us. This knowledge should not be seen as a wedge that will somehow separate us from a desire for communion with the Creator.  It would be a capricious deity who gave us the mental gifts necessary to explore the universe and then slapped us for using these talents.

All this is not to say that we must jettison the wisdom gained by the Ancients, wisdom which is often set down in religious scriptures. There are primal spiritual truths which we, the human race, should grasp firmly and take along with us as we march forward. My wish would be that my student come to understand that these truths are not dependent upon whether biblical genealogies are historical are not. The ancient authors of scripture were trying to answer the same questions that baffle us now even now. How did we get here?  What should be the purpose of our lives? Why are our lives so ephemeral and so often fraught with difficulties? How should we interact with our fellow humans?

In their asking, our far-distant ancestors discovered truths of much greater import than the age of the earth. We should acknowledge and hold tightly these momentous transcendent verities. There was a moment of creation. Even if not supreme, we are a remarkable and special component of that Creation. We need to rely on each other. We must exercise care of our natural world. There is a powerful creative force at work in the cosmos.

As we move onward, we surely must not fear to interpret our ancient spiritual truths in the light of new knowledge. If we were to do this, my incredulous student could rightly acknowledge that the good bishop did admirable work for his day. But my youthful protégé could also appreciate how the mighty Cascades have reared their lovely crowns. He might better understand why the earth beneath his feet may sometimes tremble.

Photo Credits:
earth from Apollo 17 - commons.wikimedia.org
Roman Septuagint (1587) - commons.wikimedia.org
Archbishop James Ussher by J. Houbraken at commons.wikimedia.org
Coepernicus title page (1543) - commons.wikimedia.org
Galileo Galilei by Justin Sustermans at commons.wikimedia.org
The Annals of the World at www.amazon.com
The Evolution Dialogues at www.amazon.com
Book of Genesis text by the author
geologic time spiral by USGS at commons.wikimedia.org
Cascade range at www.WA.gov

34. Not True: An Encounter with Science Denial: Part 1

Part 1: Life on a Young Earth

There it was, written right at the top of the completed homework assignment. The words leapt out at me as though emblazoned in the form of a neon sign –Not True.  I recall staring at my student’s handwritten comment in a state of bewilderment. Had I been unclear in my presentation of the material? Was the concept too difficult for students to understand? Was the time spent developing and presenting this lesson wasted? What on earth would prompt such a blatant rejection of facts from a pupil?

You might venture to guess that the homework assignment dealt with some esoteric, highly hypothetical subject like the possibility of multiple universes or the impending fate of the cosmos. In this case, you would be mistaken. The concept upon which the assignment was based is one of the most well established in science – the plate tectonics theory. But why would this otherwise excellent student write such a comment on his paper I wondered? This was a statement that showed a total rejection of the fruits of several decades of progress in geology. It was a complete denial of what science has revealed about the geological dynamics of planet earth. And then it dawned on me. The assignment we had just completed (and by extension, the plate tectonics theory) showed that the earth is extraordinarily old.

This young man’s worldview was heavily influenced by the church he attended. As you may guess, the earth upon which this congregation lived was only six thousand years old. Was my student rejecting the theory itself or were they denying evidence that the earth is incredibly ancient? A sensation I can only describe as despondency crept over me. Was it really necessary for this young person to steadfastly choose between science and belief?

In analyzing this example of science rejection, we need to take a quick look at the plate tectonics theory itself.  Is it so tenuous that it deserves the distrust bestowed upon it by my student? Then in the second installment of this essay, I will suggest a rationale for his belief in a young earth. I suggest that it is based upon an explicit religious belief which is misguided, misunderstood, and unnecessary.

There are two major ideas encompassed by the plate tectonics theory. The first involves the structure of the earth’s crust. The crust is the outer layer of the earth. It is the part upon which we live, hike, climb, and run. We might think of earth’s crust as the skin of a fruit or the shell of an egg. The important point, in regards to plate tectonics, is that scientists have found that the crust is fractured into pieces of various sizes. These are the so-called tectonic plates. The second grand notion within the theory is that these tectonic plates are in motion (you may have heard of the term continental drift). What geologists now recognize is that the tectonic plates into which the crust is fractured include not just continents but adjacent portions of seafloor as well. In fact one of the largest plates, the Pacific plate, is almost entirely seafloor. Here in Indiana we are passengers, leisurely riding to the southwest, on the North American plate. This plate also includes most of the floor of the western Atlantic. Granted, it is rather difficult to imagine the continents and seafloors wandering about over the surface of the globe. The notion is not something that is intuitive and I personally heard skepticism being voiced as late as the 1970’s.

Looking at a world map, one is likely to notice that the contours of the eastern coastline of South American and the western coast of Africa could juxtapose like pieces of a puzzle. This apposition has been perceived over the years by a number of scientists. However, the person most often associated with the original proposal that these two continents were once joined together is the German geophysicist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930). In 1915 Wegener suggested that the earth’s continents had once been united as a single enormous land mass he called Pangaea. Unfortunately he had little evidence to support his hypothesis of “continental drift.”

Over time, evidence that the continents were once united came to light. Certain kinds of plant and animal fossils were found in widely differing locals upon earth. Fossils of the ancient plant Glossopteris, for example, are found in South America, South Africa, Australia, and India. Certain types of bedrock and fossils occur in both eastern North America and Western Europe. Fossils of the ancient mammal-like reptile Lystrosaurus have been found in Africa, Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and even Antarctica. Such biogeography suggests that these organisms once inhabited the same land mass. Alternatively, some scientists postulated that ancient land bridges between the continents could explain such disjunct fossil distribution. However, with certain exceptions, no evidence of such bridges is known to exist.

Then, in the 1950’s, scientists found confirmation of a mid-ocean ridge running between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. This ridge was highly geologically active with frequent earthquakes and magma extrusions. It came to be understood that such ridges were common at many other places under the world’s oceans. Not only that, it was soon realized that they marked the boundaries of the planet’s tectonic plates. From this knowledge came the concept of sea floor spreading. At these ridges, molten rock wells up from deep within the earth. As it does so, tectonic plates are pushed apart as new seafloor is built. Several years after his death, geologists had begun to understand the mechanism which could actually cause Wegener’s “continental drift” to occur.

As more and more information about the earth’s interior was gathered over the ensuing decades, it became clearer how tectonic plate movement was caused. Scientists have known for some time that the earth’s crust rests upon an underlying layer of exceedingly dense, hot rock some eighteen-hundred miles thick. This zone, which lies between earth’s crust and outer core, is called the mantle. Unlike the hard, brittle crustal rock with which we are familiar, the rock of the mantle is molten and behaves like a plastic – it flows. Convection currents form within the mantle. Hot mantle material rises up toward the crust, cools and descends back into the depths. These circulating motions provide the forces which move the tectonic plates.

At some points, like the mid-Atlantic ridge, the tectonic plates are being pushed apart. At other places the plates slide past one another. As these plates grind against each other they may, like passengers entering and exiting a crowded subway car, become stuck one against the other. Immense frictional forces build until, with a sudden lurch, they begin moving again. The enormous stored energy is released as an earthquake as the crust harmonically oscillates in elastic rebound. The San Andreas Fault in California is a classic example.

The Indian subcontinent, part of the Indo-Australian plate, is plowing into Asia even now. Like the crumpling of a fender in an auto collision, the pile-up has raised the immense Himalayas. Of course if tectonic plates are moving apart at various places on the globe, they have to be disappearing in others. The earth isn’t expanding like some gargantuan balloon.

Off the west coast of the United States and Canada, along the west coast of South America, and near the coasts of Japan and Indonesia lie so-called subduction zones. Here material from one tectonic plate dives beneath another plate and is reincorporated into the mantle. These are zones of tremendous geological activity, highly prone to earthquake and volcanic activity. Once these regions of plate movement were identified, and their causal mechanisms understood, it became quite clear as to why certain regions of the world were extremely prone to earthquakes, volcanic activity, and tsunamis.

You may wonder, with so much evidence at hand, what the exercise to which my student so adamantly objected entailed. In fact, the classwork we were completing simply dealt with one more undeniable piece of evidence for the ploddingly slow movement of tectonic plates. The motion of these plates was originally detected by ancillary geological sleuthing. Suggestive data were obtained by measuring the relative age of sea floor rocks at increasingly greater distances away from the mid-Atlantic ridge. As one proceeds farther from this mid-ocean ridge, the bedrock of the seafloor becomes progressively older. This is precisely what we would expect if new seafloor was being formed as lava was extruded from this rift and was pushing the North American and Eurasian plates apart.

However, our classroom exercise dealt with an even more direct means of observing plate movement. In fact, using this method, geologists can actually measure the rate at which plates move. If you use a GPS unit while driving, hiking, flying, or boating then I assume you are confident in its functionality. As you may know, your GPS unit depends on information gleaned from a system of many satellites (the Global Positioning System) that orbit several thousand miles above the earth. Just as these satellites can measure your speed as you zip along an Interstate, they can also detect and quantify the rate at which tectonic plates are moving in relationship to one another.

From such satellite technology, it has been determined that North America and Europe are moving away from each other at a little less than an inch per year. This speed is commonly compared to the rate at which our fingernails grow. Taking the average width of the Atlantic Ocean to be twenty-five hundred miles, and assuming a constant rate of sea floor spreading, I had asked the students to calculate the Atlantic’s age. If one does the appropriate calculations, an estimated age of around two-hundred million years will be attained. This coincides rather closely with the estimated span of time since the supercontinent Pangaea began to break apart.

It may well be that my incredulous student accepted the reality of tectonic plate movement. The issue for him could have been the rate at which the movement occurred. Some young earth proponents subscribe to an idea known as catastrophic plate tectonics. This notion proposes movement of the tectonic plates at a speed of many meters per second. They reason that plate movements and the breakup of a super continent (if one even existed) could occur within a few thousand years. Observed geological evidence, such as the aforementioned satellite data, does not support such high velocity plate movement. As another example, the formation of archipelagos, such as the Hawaiian Islands, clearly demonstrate slow, long term crustal movement over a tectonic hot spot. Thus I was puzzled greatly.

Why did it make sense to reject data on the rate of plate movement garnered through satellite monitoring, a technology of extreme commonality now? This rejection was particularly mystifying to me because I suspected that my recalcitrant student would feel no hesitation in making personal use of this same technology. Making sure he was taking the quickest route to another state for example. Then again, I wondered, did contemplating the possibility of an ancient earth seem far too threatening to his religious beliefs to even consider. Did he imagine that accepting one piece of geologic science would put him on the slippery slope to accepting other scientific theories? If so, perhaps he saw in this lesson a dangerous threat to scriptural authority. He certainly would not have been the first person dig in their heels when belief is threatened by fact.

Stay tuned. In my next blog (No. 36: Not True), I hope to illuminate how the belief in a 6000 year old earth became dogma among certain practitioners of the Christian religion. I will also contend that this misguided conviction is a hindrance to the development of a belief system compatible with what we have learned from science in the past five millennia.

Photo Credits:
earth in cross section - Oregon St. Univ. @ commons.wikimedia.org
biogeography Pangea - cimss.ssec.wisc.edu @ commons.wikimedia.org
mid-Atlantic ridge - NOAA @ commons.wikimedia.org
tectonic plate movement - Tulane.edu.sanelson @ commons.wikimedia.org
GPS costellation - spaceplace.nasa.gov

33. The Cabinet of Curiosities


Among the 16th Century wealthy, there began to appear collections of significant objects known as a wunderkammern or “chambers of wonders”. Now they are more commonly referred to as cabinets of curiosities. Such cupboards were filled with assemblages of objects bearing some particular significance for the owner. Occasionally a wunderkammer might occupy an entire room. Most often, the objects contained within these collections were focused upon natural history: skins, bones, bird nests, fossils for example. Rocks and minerals and artifacts from primitive societies were often collected as well. Within other collections, works of art might be found among the grouping of valued items. The objects on display were often collected during voyages of exploration, trade, or conquest. This is why, in the beginning, wunderkammern were the province of merchants, aristocrats, and royalty. Eventually these collections became popular among the more general population. During the Victorian Era it was especially common for homes to feature a cabinet of curiosities. Why?

Psychologist Christian Jarrett notes that, Humans are unique in the way we collect items purely for the satisfaction of seeking and owning them. He observes that multiple hypotheses have been offered as reasons for our inclination to collect. Everything from being unloved as a child to providing an enhanced ability to attract potential mates has been postulated by behaviorists. Whatever the reason just think of the plethora of collections people still amass here in the 21st Century. Sports memorabilia, coins, stamps, old farm tractors, field guides to birds, classic cars, trading cards; the list could go on and on. Yes, we humans really are inveterate collectors.

Of course I have my own ideas as to why we do this. Among the folks living during the beginnings of the cabinet of curiosities fad, collected items offered glimpses of unseen worlds. Our planet was a much bigger place then. The average person living in the late 1800’s was likely exposed to less information during their entire lifetime than one would get today from a single issue of a large, daily newspaper. Surely a morning spent browsing the Internet would do so. The objects in a cabinet of curiosities brought unexplored places, strange people, and bizarre animals to familiarity. A room or cabinet filled with unusual objects carried home the strangeness and variety to be found in the far corners of the world.

As you may have guessed, I have my own cabinet. Indeed, I have tried to imitate those bygone times and enlarge it to fill a room in our house. But, alas, my ever-indulgent wife does have her limits. Nevertheless my cabinet of curiosities is ample enough to indulge my penchant for collecting natural history objects. The “why” of my own assemblage is this. By merely casting my eyes upon a given object in my collection, I am removed from the present and transported back to another time and place. Selecting an object from my cabinet, turning it in my hand, feeling its shape and texture are the switches which turn on my meditations upon past explorations and experiences. The objects in my cabinet are the keys which open a treasure trove of remembrances. I am granted once again the wonders of the rainforests, deserts, high mountains, oceans, and extraordinary peoples of the earth. Let me give you examples.

Upon my curiosity table sits an indigenous pottered bowl and in it rests a small gathering of stones. I lift one, a dark gray piece of granite worn smooth by the action of flowing water. It looks like a perfect stone for skipping I muse. But, as I hold this small stone, my mind effortlessly returns to the upper reaches of the Rio Napo in Ecuador where it was gathered. Shallow, flowing swiftly, strewn with boulders; the Napo looks quite different here than it does in northeastern Peru. Here, near its union with the Amazon, the river is as broad as the Ohio. Silt-laden and the color of a latte, the Napo moves at a more ponderous pace but still carries a volume of water of immense proportions. Now my mind flits to a night spent searching for caimans along the Napo’s banks. Darkness had fallen, our search was concluded, and we roared downstream toward our lodge. The anticipation of a meal of dorado, black beans and rice with a rich flan dessert urged us onward. Sitting in the bow of the boat, I was suddenly pelted by huge dollops of rain as we entered an unexpected rain squall. Racing through the pitch black night, I briefly reflected upon what might happen should we encounter a huge, undetected, floating log. After all, we had seen many caimans. And yet I recall a feeling of pure bliss and a broad smile upon my face engendered by the adventure, the remoteness, the powerful sensation of being alive in an extraordinary moment. By some mysterious navigational cleverness, our boatman suddenly veered across the ink-dark, featureless to my eyes, river and entered the unmarked channel to the lodge. We were safely home. All of this from the touching of a small piece of granite.

Another stone, which intrigues me greatly, rests within my collection. This one too is granite but its color is a wonderfully rich pinkish-red. I plucked it, and a few of its mates, from the sands of New Mexico many years ago. This rock is even more highly polished than the one from the Rio Napo but the edges retain many of their irregular angles. Although mine was not, such stones are often found in association with fossilized dinosaur bones. They often lie in what would once have been the great reptiles’ abdominal cavity. This stone is a gastrolith (gastro=stomach; lithos = stone). Gravels such as this were picked up and swallowed by herbivorous dinosaurs. They were used as grist to help the stomach grind the heavy vegetation in their diet. Gastroliths have been polished not in a rock-tumbling machine but within the stomach of a sauropod. As I run my fingers over the incredibly smooth surface, I try to divine what beast may have used it; Brontosaurus, Camarasaurus or Alamosaurus perhaps? What was the environment like then? What companions shared the landscape? How did the creature that harbored these stones die? How long ago did the stone in my hand tumble and bang against others within the gizzard of a living dinosaur? One hundred million years is a possibility. This is a big number, well over a million average human life spans. Though I try mightily, my mind struggles to grasp the essence of this span of time. Nevertheless, take this gastrolith in one’s hands and it is impossible to forego meditations upon the Age of Dinsosaurs.

There is a bobcat skull in my cabinet. I’ve long been fascinated by the skeletal anatomy of animals, especially their skulls. The cranial architecture captivates me. The perfection of their species-specific symmetry amazes me. The detailed layout of the myriad passageways through the bone which accommodate nerves and blood vessels is intriguing. My specimen catalog says my bobcat was legally collected in SW Texas in April of 1971. Already

deceased, the bobcat was strung up on a fence post along a lonely backcountry road. Along the way, the fence posts were adorned with the bodies of many coyotes. Under each was a little pile of bones showing that these posts had been used for such purpose before. Down this way most folks don’t cotton to predators. Thus the macabre spectacle arranged for the enjoyment of passing motorists. And this opens a whole can of wiggling worms for me to sort through. Sometimes musing upon my curiosities evokes emotions of disquiet. Not all is warm and sunny.

I understand that the land upon which my bobcat prowled was ranchland. A 1988 Texas A&M University publication listed the annual economic loss of sheep and goats in the state due to predators at $12 million. The main culprit cited was the coyote but bobcats, foxes, and raptors are typically no more popular than the wild dog. I get it; feeling benevolent toward predators is difficult when they are causing economic loss. But must every predatory mammal encountered be killed? Must they be displayed in such a grotesque manner, one which clearly serves to demonstrate only hatred and contempt?

I like to hunt myself and have enjoyed many a meal of wild game. But even after the passage of nearly fifty years, I have been unable to erase the site of

that bobcat and all those dead coyotes strung up along the fenceline. There is something about it that just feels exceedingly wrong. Predator control directed toward an active livestock killer is one thing. Wantonly killing every coyote, bobcat, or fox one encounters is something entirely different. Heedlessly and disturbingly displaying their carcasses shows a total disconnect. It is a complete detachment from any appreciation of the innate beauty of the animal, appreciation of the ecological niche it once occupied, or its deep-time evolutionary history. It should also be noted that this practice seems a poor way to enlist public sympathy for hunting, a sport already suffering a historical decline. Such wanton destruction seems a far cry from the empathy, understanding, and gratitude the genuine sportsman-hunter displays toward their prey. It bears little resemblance to the honorable rules of game pursuit my grandfather taught me as a neophyte hunter many decades ago. Has the noble tradition of the hunt nowadays metamorphosed into a simple lust for killing? The rise of predator hunting competitions is a case in point. The online investigative magazine FairWarning recently published an article entitled Killing Coyotes, Bobcats and Foxes for Fun and Profit. Take a look, but be forewarned. You’ll see what I mean.

Also in my cabinet of curiosities is a kibuyu; a long, reddish brown gourd. This one still radiates the odor of smoke from a cooking fire. The fire in question burned upon the dirt floor of the home of the Maasai man from whom the gourd was acquired. He used this kibuyu to hold milk, cattle blood or more often a mixture of the two, a main source of protein for the Maasai. Admiring the gourd, my mind drifts back to the savannah of East Africa and the small village of dark, smoke-filled huts with their outer walls of cow dung plaster. Viewed from afar, the village melted into the grasslands as easily as two clouds might merge. There is much to admire about the Maasai, I muse. Confirming one’s place among the morani (warrior) clan by killing a lion with a spear sounds a fairly daunting task to me. Not a fraternity for the timid I’d say. The Maasai also impressed me with their ability to maintain ancestral traditions while accommodating changes attendant to the modern world.

But drinking milk mixed with bovine blood? The practice serves to remind me how varied and strange (at least to American minds) the eating habits of other peoples can be. My Temuan friends in SE Asia relished a meal of leaf monkey roasted over an open fire. The Penan people on adjacent Borneo included snakes, frogs, and locusts in their diet. In Indonesia, we were once served a side dish of fried blood; tasty and rich in protein but unfamiliarly unnerving on first sight. Yagua people in Peru much enjoy an alcoholic

drink called chicha which is made from yuca root (or corn) and is sometimes called masato. The root is pulverized and then chewed by the women making the concoction. The masticated pulp containing their salivary enzymes is spit into a bowl, water is added, and the mixture is left to ferment before drinking. Would you give it a try? In Ecuador and Peru a dish handed down from the Incans called cuy is still

savored. But in the U.S., we more typically enjoy guinea pigs as pets, not dinner. I suppose we could find as many strange food predilections as there are foreign cultures. It is an interesting and sometimes macabre (by our standards) custom to investigate. Again, my assortment of curiosities has launched me upon remembered journeys.

There is a fossilized shark tooth in my cabinet of curiosities; as there should be for anyone interested in fossils I should think. This particular tooth came

from the Cooper River in South Carolina. It is a very big tooth from an especially large shark called megalodon. Wikipedia says, it is “regarded as one of the largest and most powerful predators to have ever lived.”

Estimates of its length range up to sixty feet and its weight more than fifty tons. Should we ever develop a time machine, it makes a swim in the Pliocene seas in which megalodon swam sound like a particularly bad idea. Considering the tooth often prompts me to recall my first experience of meeting a shark in the water. While snorkeling along the surface of the bathtub-warm South China Sea, a shark swam directly beneath me. It seemed to be on a mission as it swam rapidly and seemingly purposefully away. I recall my reaction as being the classic autonomic nervous system’s fight or flight response. My heartrate surged, breathing sped up, pupils dilated, and body hair stood on end. As it swam away, “my shark” miraculously, before my very eyes, shrank from the twelve-foot monster I initially perceived to a youngster a couple of feet in length. That’s what swimming with a shark for the first time can do I suppose.

I have a Balinese fright mask. It is a fearsome thing with mad, bulging eyes

and lethal-looking fangs of great length. The image projected is nightmarish. Oddly enough, I find that gazing upon this fearsome disguise causes my mind to take flight and reminiscence upon one of the most pleasant sojourns of my life. I recall the island of Bali as being near paradisiacal. Granted, forty-five years have passed since I walked the sands of Kuta Beach or watched the sun set with vibrant, multicolor into the Indian Ocean to the west. Like many a paradise

the solitude and beauty of this place has been lost. When we come to love a place, it is often loved to death I’m afraid. But it is my good fortune to remember Bali without the crowds, the trendy shops, and the littered beaches. It was a place of great beauty, lovely people, and rich culture. Admiring my mask enables me to go back there.

The tropical evening brings with it an ambiance that is a splendor to behold. Absent the intense, nearly unbearable heat of midday, comes a time of picture-perfect temperature, pleasantly moist humidity, and gentle sea breeze. Anne, daughter Michelle, and I venture forth from our tiny room; $3US a day, breakfast of tea and fried banana included. First, a meal; what will it be this evening? Perhaps nasi goring (fried rice), a SE Asian staple. Satay is always a delicious choice, the skewered pieces of chicken mouthwateringly roasted over charcoal. Maybe it will be something really special such as babi guling (roast suckling pig). After dinner, comes the much anticipated, nightly visit to a Balinese theater. We sit in the open air and the beautiful, melodic tones of the gamelan orchestra begin (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEWCCSuHsuQ). The metallophones, gongs, drums, and flutes emit their wonderfully exotic tones. The musicians play for hours with perfect timing and exceptional skill. Without reference to written score or note, they rely solely on practice and memory. The dancers appear and we sit mesmerized by the artistry, skill, and mythology of a culture fourteen centuries in age. The stage is populated by kings and demons, monkey gods, and golden deer as the rich mythology of the Balinese plays out before us.

The mask of which I have spoken is a prop in such a production. This one is called the Barong-kris dance. In this mythological epic, the Barong represents the king of spirits, a protective force. Aligned against Barong is the witch Rangda, evil likeness to his overpowering virtuousness. The pair battle; Rangda causes the allies of Barong to turn their krises (knives) upon themselves. Entranced by the power of Rangda one of the dancers falls upon us as he fights against her influence. We recoil in alarm as we try to keep the knife-wielding dancer at arm’s length. But the power of Barong is great, the demons are assuaged. Rangda is defeated. The krises are withdrawn. As with so many of the world’s mythologies, good triumphs over evil.

On other nights, we enjoyed the Hindu epic called the Ramayana and the mesmerizing kechak dance. During the day, we explored the wood carving, painting, and weaving skills of the wonderfully artistic Balinese. Other days were spent walking the beaches, some with black sand from the pulverized volcanic rocks of the island. There were duck shepherds and padi harvesters with whom to talk. There were Hindu temples and volcanic peaks which needed exploring. I am taken back to a time when we reveled in the freedom of youthfulness. Unencumbered, naively traveling without fear, oblivious to the cares of the world we followed our bliss.

And so, you see my friends, there are countless vistas to be offered within one’s cabinet of curiosities. I hope you too are building such a cabinet. It is never too late to start. Life is short, our experiences preciously ephemeral. But it is our great fortune that they may, with a gentle nudge from an item in our cabinet, be reenacted again and again.

Photo Credits:

cabinet of curiosities by Saudade7 @ English Wikipedia.org

cuy by Pedro Martinez Corada @ commons.wikimedia.org

fox carcasses courtesy FairWarning.org

gamelan orchestra by David Stanley @ commons.wikimedia.org

megalodon jaws @ commons.wikimeida.org

yuca root by Dick Culbert Gibsons @ commons.wikimedia.org

All others by the author.


32. An Exceedingly Clever Chimp

I watched as the African grey parrot intensely studied the proffered tray of objects. Lying upon this salver were several toys. The parrot had been asked to choose the little model automobile from the collection. He did so effortlessly. The particular parrot in question was named Alex. His choosing of the car from the collection was child’s play for him. Alex could comprehend the concept of bigger and smaller. He could identify colors and shapes. He possessed basic number sense, including the ability to add numbers and find their sum. Alex could use dozens upon dozens of words properly. For a non-primate, with a brain the size of a walnut, the intelligence of this animal simply astounded me. Alex died in 2007 at the age of 31 years. Thus his owner, Irene Pepperberg, could probe no further into his astonishing intelligence. Animal psychologist Pepperberg maintained that Alex, at the time of his death, had the intelligence and emotional level of a human child.

Then there was Koko the gorilla (1971-2018). Over the years, Koko was featured in stories in National Geographic and on PBS television. Thus, you may be aware that she had been taught American Sign Language by animal behaviorist Francine Patterson. Although there were skeptics, Ms. Patterson believed Koko could use over one thousand signs and could understand some two thousand spoken words. Moreover, Patterson’s studies suggest that Koko could construct meaningful sentences using her pool of signs and words. I recall reading about an instance in which Koko tried to fabricate an excuse for a bit of misbehavior in which she had indulged. Does this not indicate an incredibly high level of intelligence? Simply entertaining the concept of right and wrong is remarkable for a non-human animal. Actually developing a narrative to avoid consequences for such mischievousness is a piece of astounding mental gymnastics.

Crows and honey badgers using tools, elephants apparently mourning their dead, octopuses learning complicated behavioral sequences: given the time and the inclination to do so, I suppose one could find even more examples of such intriguing animal behaviors. These accounts should remind us that we have far to go in our attempt to comprehend just how complex and advanced the animal mind may be. My guess is that we have sadly underestimated the depth of intelligence and cognitive abilities of our animal kin.

The most astonishing example of non-human, intelligent behavior I ever witnessed took place many years ago at Zoo Negara in Kuala Lumpur. It was an explicit display of forethought, planning, and the execution of a clever scheme.  This behavior involved an exceedingly clever chimpanzee, a species known to scientists as Pan troglodytes.

I must admit that chimpanzees have always made me a bit uneasy. Maybe it is their ability to be so terribly vicious. Watching a troop of these animals moving like some sinister death squad, as they silently and cooperatively stalk a red colobus monkey is chilling. Seeing them subsequently rip their prey to pieces in an orgy of violent feasting is shocking. Reports of attacks by chimps (supposedly “pets”) on humans certainly have not assuaged my anxiety. Given their strength, the amount of damage an enraged chimpanzee can inflict is horrifying. Perhaps this terrible tendency to violence reminds us all too well of our own proclivities for homicide, genocide, and war. Why shouldn’t that make us edgy?

Then again, chimpanzees are said to be our closest living relative within the animal kingdom. The simple fact that chimpanzees look so much like us could be another factor that induces my disquiet. It must be a feeling that is widely shared by other people. As members of any zoo’s primate exhibit, chimps certainly seem to attract a great deal of attention. Visitor’s stare at them, smile at them, taunt them, and laugh at them.  In the end, these human observers seem unable to come to grips with just how one should really feel while standing in the presence of an animal which is so nearly a mirror image of us.

Perhaps the most unsettling experience of this nature that I have undergone myself occurred one afternoon in the Cincinnati zoo. It was winter, there were few visitors at midafternoon, and I was wondering alone through the disconcertingly darkened primate house. Abruptly I came upon an indoor enclosure housing a group of bonobos (Pan paniscus). Bonobos are sometimes called pygmy chimpanzees. They aren’t really that much smaller than the typical chimp but are more slender in build or gracile as scientists might say. Bonobos often stand, and sometimes move about, on two legs.

As I neared their exhibit, a group of bonobos was standing in just such a manner. Upon seeing them, a sudden feeling of disorientation struck me. Standing there in the dim corridor, out of sight or sound of other people, I had the eerie feeling that I had accidentally walked through some sort of time portal. I suddenly stood in the Pliocene Epoch some three million years ago. On the other side of the glass stood three individuals and they looked very much like my australopithecine ancestors. Such was the powerful suggestion of humanity engendered by these frighteningly anthropoid primates. For a moment I was struck by an ancient, innate urge to seek cover. I feared these alien tribe-members would discover my presence and act instinctively to defend their territory! Such was the seeming reality of my encounter. It was a “shiver down the spine” moment that has stayed with me for many years now.

As a measure of just how like we humans the genus Pan really is, consider that the National Primate Research Center has suggested that chimpanzees be placed in the same taxonomic genus (Homo) as humans. They point out that this change could influence the way chimpanzees are perceived and treated. For example, it might then be considered unethical to keep them in zoos. Be that as it may, what it also suggests is that chimpanzees are indeed very, very closely related to humans. I realize this statement will make many folks extremely uncomfortable. Some will reject it outright of course. But it has been obvious for a long, long time (even to non-scientists) that chimps and humans undeniably have much in common. For example, both species share certain blood types, have similar reproductive cycles, limb anatomy, and bipedal walking. Tool use and complex social behaviors are also hallmarks of both species as well.

Today, with advances in molecular biology, we today have a powerful tool with which to analyze the degree of relationship between species. Through DNA analysis, the relationship between humans and chimpanzees has been even more completely, precisely, and conclusively verified. Molecular biologists have found that chimpanzees and humans share around 98% of their genomic material. In other words, only 2% of the A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s that comprise the genetic code for building a human are not sequentially the same in a chimpanzee. For an extremely powerful piece of evidence of the close relationship of humans and chimps, let’s zero in specifically on the genetics of human chromosome number two.

In each nucleated cell in our body we have 46 chromosomes; chimpanzees have 48. In both cases, the chromosomes are comprised of molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) wound around little protein spheres called histones. The histones help build a skeletal structure for the chromosomes. The DNA, of course, carries the genetic blueprint which allows organisms to grow and develop as well as instructions for cells to carry out their life functions. These DNA directions are passed from parents to offspring by means of which life is perpetuated. At the tips of the chromosomes are regions called telomeres. Telomeres are actually segments of a chromosome in which a series of DNA bases, TAGGG for example, are repeated over and over again hundreds of times. Like the aglets at the tips of a shoelace, telomeres occur only at the ends of chromosomes – normally.

Chromosomes also have a region of DNA known as a centromere near their middle. This structure helps chromosomes separate during cell division. This process is called mitosis and it allows organisms to physically grow in size and to replace old or damaged tissues such as skin and blood. Another characteristic feature of chromosomes is that, under proper staining techniques, very distinct bands appear on them (called G-bands). You might think of these bands as chromosomal bar codes. These distinctive zones of light and dark coloration help technicians to recognize and assign a number to specific chromosomes.

So how does all this relate to the close relationship of humans and chimpanzees? Well, if we align human chromosome 2 next to chimpanzee chromosomes 2a and 2b, a very interesting pattern emerges. The most obvious thing we see is that, when the two chimp chromosomes are butted end to end, their length and banding patterns match those of human chromosome 2. But something even more striking emerges when these chromosomes are analyzed molecularly. Human chromosome 2 not only has telomeres at its ends; it also has telomeric sequences in its middle. Just as significantly, there are two centromere sequences amid human chromosome 2.

What this demonstrates is that humans and chimps don’t just share some DNA. After all, we share some DNA with essentially every other living thing on earth. No, what this reveals very clearly is that humans and chimpanzees actually share specific chromosomes. The ancestor of chimpanzees and humans had 48 chromosomes. After the evolutionary divergence of these two species some five million years ago, a so-called chromosome fusion event occurred in the human line. This resulted in a reduction in chromosome number from 48 to 46. It also yielded a pair of chromosomes which have telomeres, and an extra centromere in their middle, where they don’t belong so to speak. Is it any wonder that we humans stand before a chimpanzee exhibit and experience such a variety of impassioned responses? Perhaps it is the sensing of our atavistic connection with these animals which causes our emotions to vacillate like a caroming billiard ball when we confront them. Washing over us we feel simultaneously the sentiments of fascination, fear, revulsion, attraction, and, in the end, a longing to know just what it is they are thinking.

And make no mistake; they are thinking. A chimpanzee has the intelligence quotient of a young human. The degree of inquisitiveness, inventiveness, and problem solving ability this implies is enormous. And here is where the story circles back to the chimpanzee in the Kuala Lumpur zoo. Modern zoos have done much to improve the psychological lot of captive primates. For decades the manner in which chimpanzees were exhibited in zoos was disgraceful. Perhaps we just didn’t know how intelligent, and human-like, these animals were. Maybe it was simple anthropogenic arrogance on our part.

I recall trips to what were considered the best of zoos and even here it was routine to see chimpanzees housed in tiny, sterile, concrete cubicles. Inside there was nothing to engage the occupants. Steel bars and a bare concrete floor was the lot of a typical zoo chimpanzee. Given their high level of intelligence, it is no wonder that these animals exhibited neurotic behaviors. Chimps were prone to activities such as endless pacing, throwing “objects” at visitors, or simply sitting in fatalistic, apathetic quietness. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by this treatment of chimpanzees. We do the same thing to our fellow man. Humans confined in the solitary units (sometimes euphemistically called Intensive Management Units) of prisons likewise exhibit disturbing signs of abnormal behavior. Self-mutilation, violent aggressive outbursts, assaulting of officers with bodily waste, and even autosarcophagy are known.

Today it is common to see primates housed in large cages with plenty of visual and tactile stimuli to engage them. Food is often placed, not in a simple bowl, but hidden in spots requiring the animals to search and find it. The opportunity for physical exercise is provided by climbing apparatuses. Still, in the case of chimpanzees, we are dealing with incredibly intelligent animals. Sadly, sometimes the frills offered them are not enough to satisfy their need for novelty and engagement. In response, they become exceedingly inventive in their endeavors to avoid boredom. Such was the case of the large male I observed.

This fellow was accommodated in a large, open-air enclosure which was bowl-like in shape. Thus, zoo visitors looked down into his arena from an observation area on its rim. In the center of the chimpanzee’s “habitat” was an elaborate climbing contrivance. It much resembled an oversized version of the metal climbing labyrinth often seen on school playgrounds. The chimp had been given some tree branches still bearing leaves. These he could use as both food and entertainment. Grabbing one of the branches, the chimpanzee began to climb the apparatus in the center of his cage. Arriving at the top, he began a series of the pant-hooting calls chimps typical use for communication over long distances. These were accompanied by some half-hearted leaping up and down and the waving about of his tree branch. Suddenly with a loud scream he leaped, in a posture much like a simian sky-diver, from the top of his climbing tower. Outward he sailed and, as he did so, he tossed the tree branch up in the air toward the observation deck and dropped with a thud to the floor of his cage.

Retrieving his piece of vegetation, the ape now methodically removed several of the branch tips. Now he had what was essentially a long stick about two inches in diameter with some short side branches. Finishing his pruning, he now once again climbed the tower and began his hooting performance, all the while waving his stick about menacingly. Again there was the sudden scream, the leap outward, and the tossing of the stick into the air followed by his plunge back to the bottom of the enclosure. By now his performances, and its’ loud sounds, had drawn a healthy crowd of human observers. The throng appreciatively celebrated the chimp’s performance with ooh’s, aah’s, and applause.

Once more he retrieved the object he had thrown. He sat down and again, quite methodically, began to break off any remaining side branches from the limb. Finishing this procedure, he proceeded to break the limb into smaller pieces about six inches long. One of these he selected and, taking it along, again began the climb to the top of his playground equipment. As you could perhaps predict, the old male then began to repeat his previous performance. There was the loud hooting, rapidly increasing in volume. He jumped up and down with renewed vigor. And, of course, there came the skydiver-like launch out into space and toward the mesmerized human audience. Only this time he had one final trick in his bag. Instead of simply hurling the little projectile he carried into the air in a haphazard manner, he did this.

As he leaped from the top of the tower, the chimp brought the stick down between his knees. Now, as he sailed out into the air, he hurled the stick as one would release a Frisbee. It was a perfect backhand release, complete with the final snap of the wrist, which imparted incredible velocity to his missile. And this time, it wasn’t a random toss. He fired the small piece of sharpened wood directly at the people lining the observation deck railing. With loud shrieks of shock and dismay, the people standing there scrambled for their lives as the wooden rocket careened over their heads. A couple of less nimble observers tripped and fell in their haste to avoid being impaled by the incoming missile.

All in all, it was a spectacle of utter chaos. There is no uncertainty in my mind that the big chimp had planned this complex performance with great forethought. The whole sequence of actions he needed to assemble a crowd, scare them half to death, and reap the benefits of their panic-stricken reaction were quite obvious. In fact I would swear that I detected, just before his furry brow fell out of sight below the railing, the slightest hint of a self-satisfied smirk upon his face.


Image Credits:

chimpanzee sketch from Brehms Tierleben @ commons.wikimedia.org

chimp/human reflection by Stephanie Clifford @ commons.wikimedia.org

DNA double helix by Vcpmartin @ commons.wikimedia.org

DNA base pairings by A. Spielhoff @ commons.wikimedia.org

G-banded chromosomes courtesy of Applied StemCell, Inc.

human-chimp chromosomes courtesty Campbell Biology in Focus

caged chimpanzee by Andrzej Barabasz @ commons.wikimedia.org

31. Of Course a Fish Can’t Climb a Tree!

But then again, as you might guess, I know of one that can. I first met this odd and exceptional member of the fish fraternity in Southeast Asia; Malaysia to be precise. It was in this beautiful tropical country, bounded by the Straits of Malacca to the west and the South China Sea to the east, that I first really became familiar with the ocean’s tidal behavior. Subsequently I also grew acquainted with the rhythmic parade of animals which marched to the tune of the rising and ebbing tides.

Each day, along myriad coastlines throughout the world, the levels of the water of the world’s oceans rise and fall in concert with the gravitational effects of the moon and, to a lesser extent, the sun. Generally speaking there are two high tides and two low tides during an earth day. I found, as a newcomer to the world of tidal influences, that the extension of the coastline during low tides opened up a whole new arena for experiencing the life forms of the sea. In many areas, the retreating sea left behind tidal pools. While exploring these little ponds of retained seawater, one could never predict what might have been imprisoned as the ocean withdrew. It could be a lovely eagle ray trapped by the ebbing tide, an octopus flowing under a protective coral ledge, prickly sea urchins, a cushion starfish looking odd with its absence of arms, an incautious parrotfish; all these were possibilities. In other areas the receding tide might leave only vast expanses of mud flats. These mucky wildernesses had their own assemblage of creatures and it was here that I learned that a fish really can climb a tree.

Meet the mudskipper. Along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia lived several species of mudskippers. Upon first seeing one, I was struck by the bulging appearance of its huge, frog-like eyes. One genus of Malaysian mudskipper, Periophthalmus, is named after these huge, protruding, far-seeing eyes. I should have recognized it as a member of the goby family; they all seem to have really big eyes. But, after all, this was my first encounter with a strange, big-eyed fish clambering about on land and willfully forsaking all relationship with the sea.

Mudskippers are not large fish. Depending upon the species, their size varies from two to nine inches in total length. Their hues tend to be a bland, a mud-colored beige or chocolate which serves to camouflage them upon the tidal flats they inhabit. During the breeding season the colors of males become more vibrant with the body being marked by dark, black, bars the sides and dorsal fins spotted with turquoise or shaded in red. They are quite attractive at this stage.

Mudskippers move about over the tidal mudflats with an odd lurching forward upon their pectoral (front) fins. This type of locomotion has been called, in a descriptively accurate way, as crutching. In their mode of locomotion they reminded me of little miniature walruses. Among mudskippers, the supporting structures of the pectoral fins project out from the body and move in a manner analogous to a shoulder joint. These fins also have a wrist-like joint at their distal ends. As a result, the fins bend outward to form a contact surface with the mud much like a primitive foot. Think of dragging yourself across the floor using only your straightened arms. If you did this by moving both arms simultaneously (no easy task) you would be crutching along like a mudskipper.

I found watching mudskippers to be both an inexpensive and an absorbing way to spend a day. Most often during my visits to the mudflats exposed by the receding tide, they were populated by dozens of lively mudskippers. Some were active predators and could be seen making a sudden chomp upon an unsuspecting soldier crab. These little crustaceans I found fascinating in their own right. They typically occurred in platoons numbering in the hundreds and they roamed the flats feeding upon the detritus in the mud. When I approached them, they would retreat en masse toward the water. If I approached more rapidly, they would halt their retreat and begin to dig directly beneath themselves. The result was a disappearing act in which they all suddenly vanished simultaneously into the mud as though abruptly teleported to another world.

Other mudskippers could be seen propelling their torpedo-shaped bodies slowly across the muck, their heads moving back and forth like a miniature grazing cow. These were feeding on the algae which grew upon the muddy surface of the tidal flats. Occasionally I would see a pair of males locked jaw to jaw in a territorial dispute. Alternately tugging and pushing they vied mightily for possession of the mutually desired piece of property. At other times I would see a male do a tail-stand or flip himself violently across the mud in an attempt to draw the attention of an admiring female. All in all it was quite an entertaining tableau that was spread before me on the exposed mud.

As noted, all this foraging, territorial, and mating behavior was often carried out far from the water’s edge. That in itself was notably unusual for a fish. After all they do have gills and gills are generally meant for use in the water. Mudskippers have evolved several ways to circumvent the issue of using gills while out of the water. First, they can carry out cutaneous respiration through their skin. Similar to some amphibians, oxygen and carbon dioxide simply diffuse between the skin and air. This demands that the skin be moist so the mudskippers periodically doused themselves in a tidal pool or rolled in the wet mud. Another of their adaptive tricks was taking a huge gulp of air and holding that in their gill chambers while out of the water. As an additional safeguard, they are also inordinately tolerant of low oxygen levels in their body tissues.

In many areas, the transition from ocean/mudflat to drier ground was marked by broad swaths of mangrove trees. It never ceased to amaze me to see a tree growing with its feet periodically standing in salt water. We tend to think of salt as anathema to plants and yet this incredible salt tolerance is a hallmark of these plants. Mangrove forests are extremely important because many marine animals use their intertwining, stilted roots as nurseries for their young. Mangroves provide ideal breeding grounds for many of the world’s fish, shrimp, crabs, and other shellfish. Khun Pisit, a Thai mangrove preservationist had this cleverly accurate analogy to offer regarding mangroves.

“Mangroves are like the kindergarten, seagrasses are the secondary schools, and coral reefs are the high schools and colleges for fishes! And, once the fishes graduate from university, they return to kindergarten to spawn.”

Imagine my surprise when I first visited the mudskippers of Malaysia and found them not just out of the water but occasionally perched up in the roots of the mangroves. Mudskippers use this aerial world as another place to find food. Crabs, insects, and algae may all be found upon the mangrove roots and can provide nourishment for the fish. Quite logical that it would be advantageous for them to climb up there, but I must say it was still a there were no land vertebrates. How we might ask did vertebrate animals, common in the sea for millennia, come to inhabit the dry lands of the world?

It was up to the likes of Eusthenopteron, Panderichthys, and Tiktaalik to begin the monumental advancement of back-boned animals from water to land. Such fishes possessed not only gills but a lung capable of retrieving atmospheric oxygen. Additionally, their fins were leg-like. This would have enabled them to creep up onto mud flats just as Periophthalmus does today. In being so-constructed, we might say that these ancient fishes were thus preadapted to tentatively, gradually enter the terrestrial world. This new world was much to their evolutionary advantage. It was a land devoid of large predators, rich with potential food sources, and totally lacking in other vertebrate species which might compete for prey.

As I stared in rapt attention at the little mudskippers, I wondered if this was a scene such as one might have encountered in those distant Devonian times. Here were fishes leaving the sea to explore a realm of new opportunity. We may presume that the fishes which made this giant leap from sea to land were not mental giants; they did not embark upon a premeditated course. They were simply driven onward by the instinctive search for space, food, and predator avoidance. But in them we behold the ancestors whose descendants would radiate into the thousands of vertebrate species which came to populate every ecosystem upon the earth.

So it was that the pint-sized mudskipper, doing nothing more than go about its daily business, allowed me a glimpse into earth’s far distant history, a peak into our own deep-time ancestry. Genetic variability, lengths of time virtually impossible for us to imagine, the incredible propensity of the Universe to evolve toward ever-increasing diversity, complexity, and beauty were all revealed in the contemplation of this single, quirky, diminutive member of the animal kingdom.

Many thanks little fish. Perhaps I am able to see a bit farther now.

Photos courtesy commons.wikimedia.org 

giant mudskipper by Bernard DuPont at             

mudskipper male & group by Vmenkov 

mangrove trees by Moni3 

mangrove roots by Jonathan Wilkins 

mudskippers on mangrove roots by Thomas Hoven

Tiktaalik by Zina Deretsky NSF

vertebrate tree of life by Ernst Haeckel




30. Big Cat Encounters: Panthera tigris

I think my fascination with tigers began when I was in high school and ran across an old book in the school library. It was written by British expatriate James Corbett and bore the intriguing title Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Of course the topic sounded too appealingly ghastly for a teenager to pass up. In reading, I found that Corbett had been born in 1875 in India. His parents were British colonials. As an adult, he had worked for the Bengal and North Western Railway. Having taken a keen interest in natural history from an early age, Corbett became a skilled naturalist, hunter, author, and photographer. In spite of these wide-ranging accomplishments, he is today best known as a hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards.

Man-Eaters of Kumaon is still a highly entertaining and, at times, hair-raising tale. Two particular aspects of his tale fascinated me in. First there was the unwavering courage Corbett displayed in his solo pursuit, sometimes at night, of these exceedingly dangerous animals. The other facet of his account which intrigued me was the terrifyingly aberrant behavior of the cats themselves. These were animals which had totally lost their innate fear of humans and had, in fact, begun to actively hunt people as prey. I call their behavior aberrant because the killing and eating of humans is (thankfully) far from normal behavior for tigers (or leopards). Corbett found, as have others, that such cats nearly always began selecting humans as prey because they had a physical impediment of some sort. Canine teeth worn or broken from usage and age, a face or paw full of porcupine quills which had become infected, a weakened forelimb caused by a poacher’s poorly-aimed bullet . All of these could cause a tiger to pursue the weaker, defenseless quarry represented by humans.

As a biology graduate student at Illinois State U., I once had the chance to examine a tiger very closely. Captive animals, which had died at the local zoo, would often be donated to our biology department. Here we would remove the skin for preservation and prepare the skull and post-axial skeleton for addition to the vertebrate collections. Although I had seen many tigers in zoos, I had never fully appreciated their size until I began work on this specimen. The forepaws of the great cat were literally the size of large dinner plates. Claws nearly four inches long could be extended from each massive forefoot. These could easily impale and grasp a deer or produce a slash as deeply and neatly as a butcher’s knife. The legs were impressively muscular with their underlying flexors and extensors developed to prodigious size and tone. It was exceedingly easy to see how one swipe from an immense paw could crush the skull of a sambar deer – or a human. Within the upper jaw resided canine teeth which extended nearly three inches in length from the gum line. Powered by immense masseter muscles, such teeth were capable of piercing the skull or spine of a prey animal as effortlessly as we might bite into a sandwich. The tiger measured almost four feet tall at the shoulders. From nose to tail-tip it stretched some eight and a half feet and weighed in at nearly three hundred pounds. Imagine a cat so big it could rear up and put its forepaws on the bottom of a basketball backboard! All in all, this tiger specimen was physically huge and frighteningly imposing. The mere thought of being silently, stealthily stalked by such an animal was terrifying.

One specific story that Corbett related in his Man-Eaters of Kumaon, perhaps the most disturbing, gives a perspective on the physical mismatch between a tiger and its human prey. It also sheds light on how a man-eater could impose sheer terror upon the human population of an entire district. In the year 1907, Corbett was called upon to dispatch a man-eater which had come to be called the Champawat Tiger. Champawat was a village, in the Indian district of Kumaon. The cat had moved into this area after previously roaming in adjacent Nepal. Upon arriving in this village, Corbett heard a chilling eyewitness account of the tiger’s predations. A party of men who had been walking a rural road to Champawat had this story to tell: “We were startled by hearing the agonized cries of a human being coming from the valley below. . . we cowered in fright as these cries drew nearer and nearer, . . . presently into view came a tiger, carrying a naked woman. The woman’s hair was trailing on the ground on one side of the tiger, and her feet on the other.” The tiger quickly crossed the road and disappeared into the bush carrying the screaming, flailing women as a house cat would carry a mouse. Her pitifully scant remains – a few bones, the remnant of a sari – were found the next day. A more horrifying end of life is difficult to imagine. Before Corbett ended its reign of terror, the Champawat Tiger is believed to have killed over 400 people. The gruesomeness of this narrative still sends shivers down my spine. After having this nightmarish story emblazoned upon my teenage memory is it any wonder that, even years later, my first camp-out in the tiger-inhabited jungle of the Malay Peninsula left me shall I say – uneasy?

Although decades have passed, it still seems only yesterday that my friends Dodong, Oha, and I had completed our day’s trek and prepared our camp for the night. Although far from a neophyte when it came to woodcraft, I found the skill the two Temuan tribesmen exhibited in forging a campsite from the materials at hand to be impressively efficient and rapid. Using thin vines as lashings, Dodong and Oha fixed a cross-piece between two sapling trees. They then cut several atap palm leaves about ten feet in length. The butt ends of these were placed in the ground and the leaves leaned forward to rest upon, and droop over, the cross-piece. Thus we had a small lean-to in which to shelter for the night. There was no floor of course; we simply flopped down on the ground to sleep.

Dodong urged a fire from wood that appeared to my eyes so impossibly damp one could have wrung water from it. But nevertheless, a substantial cooking fire was soon producing heat. On this pleasantly cozy blaze we roasted some diminutive catfish we had caught from a nearby stream. We also steamed rice, the one necessity needed to make any Asian meal complete. After we had eaten, we lounged around the fire and my friends set about restocking a supply of darts for their blowpipes. These they fashioned from atap palm stems whittled to a fine point. They were tipped with poison extracted by boiling the bark of a tree that they called ipoh (Antiaris toxicaria). The toxin gave the darts, after drying by the fire, the appearance of having been tipped with black paint. The projectiles were used in pursuit of birds, squirrels, and monkeys; all staples of the Temuan diet. The sap of the ipoh tree contains organic compounds known as cardiac glycosides. These chemicals are used in modern medicine to treat heart disease but, like many drugs, can be toxic if too much is given. A 1953 paper in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that test animals exposed to the ipoh tree toxin had their blood pressure rapidly fall to zero. “When the heart was examined after death the left ventricle was found to be tightly contracted and hard (Blowpipe Dart Poison from Borneo by Robinson and Ling).” Dodong put it more succinctly when he related that a monkey struck by one of their darts died within about the same amount of time it took him to smoke a cigarette. I also noted that he studiously avoided letting me handle darts that had been tipped in “ipoh”. Apparently an orang puteh simply could not be trusted to avoid accidentally stabbing himself.

As Dodong and Oha chatted (in Malay for my benefit) and worked on their armaments, my mind began to contemplate sleeping directly upon the ground that night. Naturally, a list of unwelcome guests which might invite themselves for a visit began to scroll through my mind. First there were the arthropods to consider. I had already, during one of my night-time forays into the rainforest, encountered the huge tropical centipede, Scolopendra. A friend who had been envenomed by the fangs of one of these critters told me that, for several days, it felt like he had had his hand slammed in a car door. I did not relish accidentally rolling over onto one of these. A rather frightening relative of the centipede was the enormous, black forest scorpion that patrolled the ground here. Although its sting was said to be less potent than that of Scolopendra, it was an assertion I did not care to test.

Of course there was a variety of venomous snakes to consider. Since arriving in Malaysia, I had found the Indian cobra to be extremely common. Its big cousin the king cobra also prowled these forests. Known to reach a record length of over eighteen feet, a snake this size would pack enough venom to kill a human in a matter of minutes. Certainly not an animal I wanted to be looking in the eyes should I awaken in the middle of the night. There were kraits, coral snakes and pit-vipers here too. I couldn’t help but recall an old western I’d seen as a youngster in which a rattlesnake, seeking warmth, had crawled into a cowpokes’ sleeping bag and decided to take a lingering rest upon the man’s stomach. Still, reviewing the list of possible nocturnal companions was not a cause for anxiety. No phobias revealed themselves. The various creatures I contemplated were just that, simply considerations, possibilities with which one might have to deal.

Now nightfall descended, as it does near the equator, with what seemed the suddenness of flipping off a light switch. The cacophony of frogs, toads, and insects began and I sat enthralled by the position in which I found myself. I was gripped by a feeling of absolute bliss. Abruptly there also came an epiphany, a realization of the fortunate destiny of my position. Here sat George Sly from small-town USA, an average guy and even more average student. I now rested on the opposite side of the globe, twelve-thousand miles from my Indiana home. I was sitting in the heart of a stunningly rich, intact tropical rainforest 100 million years in the making. With me were two of the few remaining people on earth still capable of not just surviving but thriving in a manner totally independent of modern society. How was it that I had been granted such an extraordinary opportunity I pondered? I still do not know. The twists and turns of one’s experiences, the choices and contingencies that result in the final trajectory of a life remain mysterious to me. I do know that this night left a significant mark in my psyche. Never again would I enter the natural world, or engage with another culture, and remain oblivious to the wonderful good fortune and the opportunities for adventure and understanding which have been bestowed upon me.

I was jerked back to awareness by the sudden exclamation of a muntjac (barking deer). Its sharp, fox-like call hung upon the night air. Recalling that this species was a primary prey in the diet of tigers, I asked Dodong if we might encounter the big cat. Yes, there were tigers in this area he said. There were also leopards and clouded leopards. We might hear a tiger he thought but seeing one was not so likely. My mind flashed to a recent report in the Straits Times of a tiger in northern Pahang state which had boldly entered an aborigine man’s hut and carried him away.

Still, my Temuan friends didn’t seem overly concerned about camping in tiger country. In fact, as we talked, they seemed much more ill at ease in regards to the possibility of encountering a tiger-mimicking creature they called the hantu harimau. Dodong described how this forest-inhabiting spirit could assume the form of various animals. To the observer, it might first appear as a bird and then, fluttering closer, a squirrel. These ruses were used, as it hopped from tree to tree, to sneakily move ever nearer to a person. When the hantu had thus come very close, it would suddenly take the form of a tiger. With a great roar the tiger would then launch itself upon its helpless human victim. Here was a tale! Told while surrounded by the impenetrable darkness and resonances of the forest, it was guaranteed to raise one’s hackles and make easy sleep a nonstarter.

I would like to be able to report that during the night I heard the greeting chuff or the territorial moaning of a tiger. It would please me even more to tell of the brief, unnerving glimpse I had as the cat melted away into the surrounding darkness. Alas, after three years in Malaysia and countless trips into its rainforests, I was never bestowed the gift of seeing a wild tiger. Perhaps the forest of my Temuan friends was not primeval enough. But sallies into the more pristine rainforest of Taman Negara, Malaysia’s major national park, were no more productive. Even seeing the spoor of Panthera tigris eluded me. And yet, in spite of this, the mere knowledge that one walked in tiger country was sufficient to endow the experience with a mystique that was tangible. One does not walk there without thinking of tiger. There is the periodic, involuntary, self-protective glance over the shoulder, the startle at the sudden snap of a twig or the flushing of a pheasant, a pause to consider why the forest has suddenly gone silent.

“The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple . . . To try to sense the range and variety of its expression . . . To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced.”

Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams

                                       The great American conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote of a grizzly bear that inhabited a mountain called Escudilla in Arizona. Upon seeing the mountain against the Arizona sky, one was automatically reminded of the legendary grizzly which roamed its heights. The mountain was permeated with his presence. The big bear was the sole survivor of his kind on the mountain. But the country must be made safe for cattle; a government trapper was dispatched. The big bear was taken. Leopold lamented that from this time forth, when one gazed upon the immense hulk of Escudilla hanging on the far horizon, one no longer thought of the big grizzly. Escudilla was just another mountain now.

And so it is with the rainforest and its tiger, the Pantanal and its jaguar, Yellowstone and its wolf. Without these magnificent keystone species, such places are just a collection of trees, only a marshy vastness, merely a coniferous forest. I do not need to see a tiger in order to delight in simply knowing that such an animal exists. Even though we may never visit these places, or see these animals, it is enough to know that they are still present. Why? Because such lands, such species allow us to imagine, to dream, to acknowledge our ancestral connections with the natural world. The presence of wildness in land or beast comforts us with the awareness, even if subliminal, that our earth is still well.

                In the final analysis, even those who proclaim disinterest in the natural world must surely recognize that we have a moral obligation to our grandchildren, great grandchildren, and generations beyond. They should inherit a certain entitlement. Such a birthright would allow them the opportunity to successfully seek out wild places and wild things themselves. Without untamed places and the ferine beings that inhabit them, it will certainly be an impoverished world, a less remarkable world we bequeath our descendants.

29. Big Cat Encounters: Panthera leo

 My next chance to see another of the big cats on my wish list involved some arduous travel. However, as I journeyed to Tanzania in east Africa, a nagging worry had begun to inject itself into my thoughts. After years of seeing Africa through the eyes of National Geographic and Animal Planet a  certain image had been implanted in my mind. The Africa I pictured was one of immense vistas and vast grasslands populated by wildebeest, gazelles, zebra, and of course – lions. Wilderness, remoteness, and isolation from other humans were components of this image. My fear was that the reality just couldn’t measure up to my expectations. Exactly what would I find there?


As we sped northward, our Land Rover traversed Africa’s notoriously irregular, unpaved secondary roads. In some places, the road bore on in an arrow-straight line over miles of washboard. Our driver, Lawrence, hurried over these stretches of road as though he was negotiating the smoothest of asphalt. Curiously enough, speeding over these endless bumps did seem to impart a tolerable, harmonic vibration to our ride. In other places, a substantial washout had removed the original roadbed and intrepid drivers had constructed a new path through the surrounding bush. As we drove further and further from the city of Arusha, the feeling of being far removed from society grew. Passing an overturned vehicle I wondered how, and from where, one might expect to receive help should such an accident befall. Here in the United States, most of us are only minutes from the nearest hospital. In the developing countries of the world, the situation is far different and accidents can have much more dire conclusions.

Upon arriving in Serengeti National Park, my fears of encountering a diminished African wild evaporated. The Serengeti was everything I had hoped it to be. Flat as a billiard table, the terrain stretched away miles to the far horizon broken only by occasional acacia trees and sporadic, mounded rock outcrops known as kopjes. This was the dry season and the landscape was a a ceaseless expanse of brownish grasses extending as far as the eye could see.

As anyone would be when visiting a new land, we were hopeful of meeting some of the human residents of the Serengeti. Here we were in luck, for shortly after entering this land of broad vistas we came upon a small Masai village. What a striking, fascinating people they were! Proud of their role as masters of these vast plains, the Masai exuded a palpable self-confidence. They have also become wise to the ways of western commerce. Photographs and village visits were not free. But unlike some tribal people who have been degraded by their exposure to money, these folks simply stated their fee (take it or leave it) and maintained a quiet dignity in so doing. Entry fee negotiated, the socializing was carried out in a most cordial manner.

The Masai believe that Ngai (God) has given them title to all the cattle in their world. These animals, along with goats, form the core of Masai agriculture and economics. Their bomas (villages) are typical surrounded by a stout, thorn fence into which the cattle are herded at night; a necessity in a land of fearsome predators. The occasional calf needing special attention may share a family’s small hut which is called an enkaji.

Curiously enough, by our standards, the enkaji is constructed by the woman of the house. She first sets poles into the ground and around these small saplings are woven to form a framework for the walls and roof. These are plastered with a mixture of mud and and cow dung. Such construction does make for an extremely dark interior since there are no windows. Cooking is done on an open fire within the enkaji. Smoke escapes through the roof, but the interior is quite noticeably hazy and somewhat stifling. Very dark, exceedingly small, smoke-filled: these are my remembered impression of a Masai home. Yet, in spite of the absence of essentially every modern convenience we seem unable to do without, familial closeness, happiness, and contentment were palpably present. Over the years, I have been granted the boon of communion with many other cultures: the Temuan, the Riberenos, the Embera, the Yagua for example. As with the Masai, I always came away thinking that an exceedingly important lesson had been bestowed upon me. Perhaps it is we who need to reevaluate our priorities in order to maintain family contiguity and achieve contentment in our lives?

Our arrival preceded by a few weeks the large-scale migration of the great throngs of African grazing animals. During the year, massive herds (wildebeest in particular)roam from the southern Serengeti northeastward  toward the Masai Mara of Kenya. Over a period of months their clockwise migration will bring them back into the southern Serengeti again. Nevertheless, the plains were dotted with non-migratory wildebeest as well as Thompson’s gazelle, Burchell’s zebra, impala, and wart hogs. All thrilled us and confirmed that here was the Africa of our imaginings.




It was our habit to make a morning and an evening game drive in the Land Rover. What might appear around the next corner was always greatly anticipated. It could be a mixed herd of grazing wildebeest and zebras that we encountered. It might be a crowd of impalas resting in the shade of an acacia thicket. Thompson’s gazelles seemed to be everywhere. Once, driving along the edge of a grove of yellow acacia, we were rewarded with the sight of a leopard lying in repose on a lower, horizontal branch of one of the trees. Resting here in the shade, and surveying its domain, the leopard’s pose was a classic postcard of east Africa. The birding was fascinating with sightings of dozens of new and to our eyes exotic species: secretary birds, ground hornbills, bare-necked spurfowl, Griffon vultures, bataleur eagles, go-away-birds, weaver birds, and bustards.


And finally, there were lions. Descending a declivity in the track we were following, we noticed that water had collected in a basin adjacent to the road. Waterholes are  key places to look for wildlife. We eagerly scanned the area and were rewarded with the sight of six lionesses lounging beside the water. In fact, as we were to discover, this is what one observes lions doing most of the time. They typically spend over eighty percent of their day resting or sleeping. Nevertheless, we were at last seeing lions and I was well satisfied to see them even in repose. Several things struck me as I gazed, from just a few yards away, at my first wild lions. The size of these cats was impressive. Lions such as the ones we were looking upon weighed around three hundred pounds and stood three feet tall at the shoulder. The second physical feature which was so arresting was how well these lions blended with their surroundings. I suppose because of previously seeing lions only in documentaries, in which the camera is solely focused upon them, I had imagined them as being more detectable. Now, as I watched the resting cats, two more emerged from the grasses surrounding the waterhole. It wasn’t until they had almost fully stepped out into the open that they were really noticeable. Their tawny color was laid upon a matte finish of satin-like fur. Their hue matched that of the grasses to such an extent that they were rendered practically invisible. Considering that the majority of their prey species are colorblind, it was little wonder that these big cats could so stealthily and so closely approach them before launching their explosive, final attack. It was easy to imagine how hunting lionesses may work cooperatively to stampede an antelope right into the jaws of a pride-mate stealthily lying in ambush.

And then there were the eyes; fixed upon us in alertness, the dozen eyes were commanding. As I gazed back at those clear, crystal pools of yellowish-brown I was mesmerized. What message did they convey? There was no hint of recognizable emotion , no sign of the friendly “I’m glad your home” look one sees in the eyes of a faithful canine companion. I saw no suggestion of a deep intelligence as one might see mirrored in the eyes of an aged pachyderm matriarch. Instead these eyes were ablaze with a deeply penetrating wildness. They were cold as Arctic ice, piercing, and untamed. It seemed such stares could penetrate my body like the pulsed probings of an MRI machine. I could easily imagine the effectiveness with which these big cats thus analyzed a herd of antelopes as they looked for a straggler, a herd member with a limping gait, an animal marked by age or disease. Abruptly a discomfort flashed fleetingly, deeply in my sub-conscious. I recognized it as the ancient, inherited fear of prey confronted by predator. It was profoundly unnerving.

Though the lionesses we saw at the waterhole were resting and misleadingly inoffensive, we were later to experience the vicious hunting prowess of these cats. Our first encounter with what one these big felines could do occurred as we rounded a corner on a morning game drive. Lying partially on the roadside was a dead zebra. A large zebra may weigh eight hundred pounds, a weight equivalent to several large men. But this mass coupled with great strength had been no match for its attacker. Along its hip was an incision which looked as though it had been surgically made with a giant scalpel. The length and the depth of the wound were frightening in their savagery. A claw four inches long, with a razor sharp tip, had done this. Tell-tale bite marks around the zebra’s throat confirmed that this was the work of a lion. A lion that was very likely lying nearby, unseen but guarding its freshly acquired kill. On other occasions we observed zebras with long, parallel, healed scars on each hip. These were animals that had also been attacked by lions. The big cats had made their characteristic leap onto the hindquarters of the zebra and the scars told of a desperate flight and a narrow escape. I could not help but ponder whether the zebra would be so lucky the next time. Nor could I avoid the empathetic, and perhaps anthropomorphic, consideration of how extraordinarily stressful it might be for a prey animal to live in such a constant state of apprehension and preparedness for flight.

Once we pulled our Land Rover up to a big male lion who was feeding on what remained of a wart hog. All the members of the cat family, including house cats, have jaw teeth which are known as carnassials. These are formed by the upper premolar teeth and the first molar teeth of the lower jaw. Carnassial teeth are evolutionarily modified to shear. They are high-crowned teeth which have a cross-sectional shape very much like that of a scissors’ blades. The sharp, flattened edge of an upper carnassial slides over the equally sharp, abruptly-edged lower molar imparting a shearing force to their bite. This is why you may have seen your domestic cat, when tackling a particularly tough piece of food, tilt its head to the side and engage the food item with its lateral jaw teeth. As we watched the big male dine on the wart hog, he did just that. Taking a stout leg bone into his mouth, the lion tilted his head to the side and brought the bone into a position between his carnassial teeth. With a sudden, loud pop the bone was sheared into two as easily as we might bite through a hot dog. There was a synchronized cry of surprise from our group as everyone reacted to this display of the tremendous power held in those fearsome jaws.

Our last encounter with a group of feeding lions occurred in another of Tanzania’s wonderful national parks – Ngorongoro. Part of a large conservation area, Ngorongoro itself is a caldera or collapsed volcanic crater some ten to twelve miles in diameter. At its center lies a large area of shallow water known as Lake Magadi. As we cruised along within the great caldera and neared the lake, we saw a group of lions near the shore. As we came closer, we saw that they were females with cubs. Some were resting, as usual, but another seemed to be tugging at something in the water. When we finally arrived upon the scene, we discovered a scene of carnage. A group of lions had killed eleven wildebeest in one savage foray during the previous night. The lions had apparently driven the fear-crazed wildebeest into the mud at the edge of the lake. Here the antelopes had become mired in the muck, floundered, and been set upon by the pride. Most of the wildebeests had been devoured and only scraps of hide and bone remained to be counted. But the carcasses of two of the animals still lay intact but half buried in the mud. A lioness was endeavoring to pull one of these free in order to resume feeding. This was the tugging exercise we had seen from a distance. The cubs alternately romped with each other or came to the Land Rover to rear up on it and investigate the strange object. Most of the lionesses were at rest from their work and casually watched their offspring’s activities. Any males that may have been involved had moved off to a place of solitude. Absent the remains of the wildebeest, the scene might have been one of quiet, social harmony.

But it really was difficult to ignore the remnants of so many prey animals. Additionally, the air remained laden with the powerful, sweet, metallic odor of blood. This aroma was mixed with the sulfurous smell of churned mud, the scent of wildebeest stomach contents lying spilled upon the mud, and the strong essence of urine voided by the fear-crazed antelopes. One could not help but imagine the wild violence, the savage growls, the frantic grunting, the slashing claws, the gory feasting that had taken place here only hours before. The scene was one of unadulterated savagery. Never again would I naively look upon a tableau of the east African plains as pastoral and benign.

And so at last I was able to frame from familiarity an enduring mental picture of lions. They could at times be so placid, so seemingly innocuous. The females were capable of directing such tenderness and attentiveness to their young. But one only needed a few days in lion country to understand the ferocious strength, the superlative stealth, the pure ferocity that resided just beneath the surface. A million years of evolutionary adaptation directed toward preying upon large herbivores –  yes, I now had an exceedingly good appreciation of what that looked like.


28. Big Cat Encounters: Puma concolor

Like many people who love things wild, I’ve always been intrigued by the large predatory cats. Lions, tigers, and mountain lions in particular have captivated me. Their physical strength, grace, and ability to maneuver noiselessly within their world have always struck me as paragons of predatory evolution. As a youngster, I dreamed that one day I might be able to actually see one of these magnificent cats in the wild. Of course actually doing so would be a significant challenge. Tigers and mountain lions are solitary and unbelievably stealthy in their movements. They also have an aversion to exposing themselves to their arch enemy – humans. Lions are social and more easily observed but, like their relatives, they lived at great distances from my Indiana home. In spite of these obstacles, I remained hopeful and – sometimes dreams do come true.

The mountain lion has many pseudonyms. Puma (from the Quechua word for them), panther, and cougar are the more commonly used. This species has a large geographic range and occurs not only in the United States but down through Mexico, Central America, and into much of South America. I had always assumed that, should I be lucky enough to see a mountain lion, it would be in the western United States. As it turned out, it was the tropical rainforest of Peru that provided this rare and thrilling opportunity.

As I, along with my guide Luis, walked through the lowland rainforest of Peru that morning, the farthest thing from my mind was a chance meeting with a mountain lion. Part of this was the fact that, as I have suggested, my mind was pre-programmed to expect this cat in a far different geographic locality. Besides, there were just so many other things to see and think about. As we sauntered along, Luis pointed out various plants of ethnobotanical interest. The use of plants for medicinal and utilitarian purposes was a field in which I had recently become interested. It seemed that Luis could elaborate upon some use for nearly every plant we encountered. There was the sap of Ficus to be used in ridding one of intestinal round worms; a most useful property in an area where worm infection was nearly universal. For a sore throat, a common ginger produced a juice useful for gargling. The walking palm provided stout poles for building construction. The irapay palm was used throughout the region for weaving into roofing units called crisnejas. The berries of camu camu were edible and contained many times the vitamin C of a typical citrus fruit. A tree called sangre de grado produced a blood-like sap which functioned as a highly efficacious wound healer. With a third of the modern worlds’ medicines derived from plants, I pondered what potential miracle cures might reside within the thousands of species of rainforest plants around me. Only a tiny percentage of these plants have been studied for their pharmaceutical properties. I wondered if we are unknowingly tossing away a cure for cancers, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease as we rabidly pursue our destruction of the tropical rainforests.

In addition to the wondrous plant world around us, there was also the usual opportunity to experience a menagerie of bird and insect species. The background noise of the forest included the seemingly ever-present screaming piha. The piercing call of this rather nondescript bird could serve as a background sound in any movie about the “jungle”. Occasionally we would see, or hear, mealy parrots or cobalt-winged parakeets zooming overhead. In their hurried flight, they seemed to be rushing to some important parrot convention and were running late. Manakins, jacamars, trogons, and motmots; the list of exotic avian encounters seemed endless.

Tropical rainforest insects are notoriously diverse and plentiful. We saw army ants on the march and termite columns that stretched away in either direction for many meters. The marching hordes of the termites reminded me of a traffic helicopter’s view of heavy traffic on the 504 in Los Angeles. Each worker returning to the nest carried a tiny chunk of wood in its diminutive jaws. Outgoing workers plodded doggedly onward toward their goal of a fallen limb or trunk.

Frequently a gorgeous blue morpho butterfly would pass near us, its cobalt-colored wings flashing in magnificence. Highly colored heliconid butterflies wafted along with their slow, inelegant flight. One would think that their bright colors and slow flight would make them an easy target for insectivorous birds. Not so; these colors warned predators of the presence of toxins in their tissues which render them unpalatable.

Scanning the ground often yielded a sighting of a pink-footed tarantula or giant millipede. Luis and I were always careful about laying our hands on trees for support without carefully glancing over them first. The boles of trees are often patrolled by predaceous bullet ants (Paraponera). At over an inch in length, these are among the largest ants in the world. Perhaps their common name will give you an idea of the power of their sting. I can tell you from experience that inattentively placing one’s hand upon one of them is not recommended.

During the days that I spent hiking with Luis, we would periodically see primates. Squirrel monkeys and saddle-backed tamarins seemed to be the most common species. Although the Peruvian rainforest is home to hundreds of species of mammals, most are either nocturnal, arboreal, or both. Thus one cannot hope to go “mammal watching” in the same way that one can successfully go birding. As a result, my mind was engaged far from the mammalian world as we strolled along. The sudden alarm bark of an agouti jerked me back to consideration of the furred world. An agouti is a hefty rodent about the size of a cat and resembling a huge, tailless rat. There are several species of agoutis in the New World tropics. Luis said that the one calling now was a black agouti. Its alarm reminded me of the bark of a fox squirrel back in Indiana. However this warning bark gave a hint of the larger size and power of the agouti; like a fox squirrel on steroids perhaps. The rodent was calling from quite closely and I assumed it had spotted us and was voicing its unease. I searched unsuccessfully for it in the vegetation near us. So occupied, I was totally unprepared as my gaze wondered back to the trail ahead of us.

For there, suddenly emerging onto the trail from the herbaceous growth alongside it, came a large brown animal; a very large brown animal. It materialized upon the trail as one might imagine an apparition suddenly entering the room through a wall. As the beast turned, barely twenty yards from us, and began to walk down the trail away from us my mind raced. For some reason I simply could not grasp what I was seeing. It was though a series of mammal photos on flip-cards were rapidly flashing through my memory banks. Whatever it was, this is what had caused the agouti to begin broadcasting its alarm.

As I watched the animal move away, my mind finally fixated on the odd stiff-legged gait of the hindquarters. CAT! – my subconscious suddenly shouted to me. No sooner had I made this recognition than the puma became aware of our presence. It did not run but its’ pace slightly increased. Veering off the trail, the big cat moved to put itself behind a large tree. Luis motioned wildly and shouted, “come, come, come” as he ran ahead. Following, I sped to the point in the trail where the mountain lion had disappeared. Looking out into the surrounding forest, there was nothing. Shaking with excitement I asked Luis, was that a mountain lion? “Yes, yes; tigre,” he said. It was one of the most remarkable things I had ever seen. How the animal was unaware enough to actually walk onto the trail ahead of us I can’t imagine. But, once it realized its error, the craftiness of its escape astonished me. It was as though we had encountered a spirit animal. It was not there. Then suddenly it was there. And just as abruptly, it was gone. My dream had been fulfilled and in a manner which fully enlightened me as to the adept stealthiness, the absolute noiselessness, the ghost-like movements of this enigmatic big cat.

Of course, back at the lodge, the news of our sighting was received with tremendous excitement. One simply does not go hiking in the rainforest and stumble upon a mountain lion. And yet, that had been our good fortune. Luis, who had spent his life walking rainforest trails, remarked that this was only his second encounter with a puma. As a boy, he and his father had been hunting in the forest and had just bagged a monkey. As they moved to retrieve it, a mountain lion suddenly appeared. Laying back its ears and growling furiously the cat darted in, snatched their game, and ran off into the forest. Luis and his father could only stand and stare in open-mouthed shock as their evening meal disappeared.

There is an intriguing epilogue to the story of our encounter. The day after our exceptional sighting, Luis and I were once again out walking one the trails near where our chance meeting had occurred. It was much the same routine. We scanned for birds and insects and discussed the various plants that we were seeing. At one point, we came to a cleared area in the forest. The swath was about five yards wide and extended north and south into the distant forest. I asked Luis why this path had been cleared and he explained that it marked the boundary of the forest reserve in which we now walked. Luis pointed northeast and indicated the direction of Venezuela. He then informed me that we could walk all the way there and never encounter a major village or road. This represented several hundred miles of unbroken rainforest. As I looked around and contemplated how uniform the forest looked in every direction, a chill ran down my spine. The ease with which one could become lost here, and the dire consequences should this happen, combined to impress upon me an exceedingly healthy respect for this place. It also made me highly appreciative of Luis’ companionship and his skill as a guide.

We continued our walk and after an hour or so decided, in unspoken agreement, to break for a brief rest. No sooner had we stopped than there came muffled, but quite distinct and very audibly, a low throaty growl. It was the snarl of a large cat. Luis and I quickly scanned the surrounding forest but of course we saw nothing. We were left to look at each other with simultaneous smiles of uneasy understanding. I remain firmly convinced that this cat was following us, paralleling our course, and curiously observing us. It had perceived our stopping and scanning around us as having been detected. With a twinge of annoyance, the cat had voiced its displeasure. Whether this was the mountain lion we had seen just the day before, a different one altogether, or their bigger cousin a jaguar we could not know. Suffice to say, this encounter was an unambiguous reminder that a walk in the tropical rainforest is not a stroll through Disney’s Animal World.

Still, I would not go so far as to suggest that visiting a tropical rainforest involves great danger. But I do propose that such visits often require a mindfulness that we seldom need to practice in modern society. Most of us live in a world devoid of natural dangers. Many would argue that this is a good thing I suppose. But it seems to me that it has made our developed world a much less stimulating place in which to dwell. Henry David Thoreau said that, . . . we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed. . . . We need to witness our own limits transgressed . . .

In such manner, I need to know that there are pumas and tigers roaming the forests of the world. A hike in Yellowstone country must entail the chance of meeting a grizzly bear or hearing the nearby howl of a wolf. Large predatory mammals prompt us to recall our own wild, ancestral heritage. They remind us that once “we” all possessed critical survival skills. Apex predators encourage us to recall that our earth is home to a wondrous richness of species. As humans, we need to know that the opportunity to hear the guttural growl of a big cat skulking close at hand still exists. When such an extraordinary possibility has been lost our earth will be a duller, a poorer, a decidedly less remarkable place to call home.

Photo Credits

Mountain lion                    Lee Elvin at Wikimedia Commons

Range map                         Felidae Conservation Fund (@ felidaefund.org)

Sangre de drago sap       courtesy of Penbani Inversiones (perbani.com.pe)

Black agouti                        Al Merkins at Wikimedia Commons

All other photos by the author.



27. A Profound Consonance: the Deep Harmony of Nature

Everyone has a listening point somewhere – some place                                                 quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.”

Sigurd Olson, Reflections from the North Country

Although it lies only sixty yards from my front door here in Indiana, I have come to this special place to think, to meditate, to try to comprehend if you will. There is a stand of timber here, a remnant of the great deciduous forest that once stretched eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. This grove is sanctified by the presence of oak and ash, walnut and maple. The understory is graced by dogwood and redbud, jewels of the Indiana spring. The forest floor sprouts toothwort, spring beauty, and mayapple. Here too are morels, turkey tails, mosses, and ferns. Although long ago timbered, and now regrown, it is a good representation of what a temperate deciduous forest should be.

Within this forest meanders an intermittent stream. Sometimes it exists only as a dry, rocky bed. At other times it is a raging torrent. Just now the stream is flowing gently and here at my spot it pours over a ledge in the sandstone bedrock. Time and the movement of liquid have carved an intricate series of steps and passageways through this rock. Now, the stream funnels through these miniature canyons and drops over the shelved stone. In doing so, the little stream broadcasts that most exquisite of natural sounds –the flow of water over rock.

Often my visits here are fruitless. Yes, I always enjoy the water music, the warm sun filtering through the leaves, and the sound of towhee and phoebe. But I have come for something more. I have come to feel the pulse of this forest. But, to do this requires a concentration. For a while I must put aside mundane distractions. My meditative search will brook no interference from the need to weed the garden, fix a loose board, or adhere to a schedule. What I search for requires a calmed mind, a willingness to bide one’s time, and a desire to listen with the soul as well as the ears. And so, quieting my mind, I sit and I wait. And sometimes, I am extraordinarily fortunate.

Naturally, it is the water melody that first insinuates itself upon my senses. I noticed that as soon as I neared the stream. But now, in my new mode of listening, I hear it more deeply. Now I hear not just a small stream flowing amongst the rocks. I hear a river of fused hydrogen and oxygen atoms responding to gravity’s call and making their way seaward. My mind wanders back to my school days when I learned to picture these water molecules as tiny Mickey Mouse images. The large oxygen head capped by the two hydrogen ears set at angles of a little over one hundred degrees from each other. The atoms in this water are ancient. Forged in a long-dead star, they have been here since the earth’s foundations were laid those many eons past. Over and over again have these elements been used. The hydrogen in this water may have once helped build a trilobite which crawled upon the floor of a long-vanished sea. The oxygen now locked in the water flowing at my feet may have issued forth from a fern frond. Perhaps this fern once grew in the coal-producing swamp forests which covered this land three-hundred million years past. This hydrogen and oxygen may have helped build ground sloth and Glyptodon, mammoth and mastodon, chipmunk and Chippewa. This water, and its component atoms, will be used again.

The soil along the stream is infiltrated by a multitude of moisture-seeking roots from the nearby forest trees. Countless numbers of water molecules are moving across the thin membranes of root hairs and beginning their journey toward the sky. They are linked by their tendency to cohere and their adhesion to the walls of the xylem tubes in which they travel. These molecules move ever upward into the canopy. Here some of them will be released into the air from pores in the undersurfaces of leaves. As each water molecule escapes, it exerts a gentle tug upon its nearest neighbor in the long freight train of water molecules extending back downward through the tree’s heartwood. Thus may a large oak pass thousands of gallons of water back into the atmosphere each year. The trees may encounter this water again in the form of rain, snow, or sleet as the hydrologic cycle turns upon itself. Not all the water being drawn into the tree is lost to transpiration of course. Some of it is incorporated into the sugar being produced in the leaves. The water supplies the twelve hydrogen atoms needed to make each molecule of glucose produced in the chloroplasts of the leaves. The oxygen atoms, released when the water molecules are torn apart within the leaf, pass into the atmosphere. Joining a partner, they form molecules available for living things – like me – whose respiring cells demand them in constant supply.

The dignified trees which comprise this forest require more than water. They crave the waste gas from my lungs as well as that from the ground beetles, chipmunks, fox squirrels, and pileated woodpeckers that thrive here. Within this gas are carbon and oxygen, the other vital constituents of glucose. I sense an exceptionally miraculous thing occurring around me now. Millions of leaves, in their species-specific shapes, are busily working away. Green, biochemical factories they are. Now, in my mind, I hear a soft pulsing background noise as of some mysterious, hidden machinery at work. The muffled sound I imagine, as though great forges and presses are at work, represents water and carbon dioxide being ripped apart and assimilated. It is protein and carbohydrate, oil and nucleic acid being built. With sunlight as their energy source, the trees are using the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen they have garnered to build bark and twig, root and flower, seed and nut. No, miraculous is not too strong a word to convey what is occurring around me.

6CO2 + 6H20 + sunlight + chlorophyll  —->  C6H12O6 + 6O2

                Others benefit from the work of the green, photosynthetic factories we call trees. I watch as a white-breasted nuthatch clambers down a trunk searching for insects to glean. A squirrel busily chews at a walnut husk, eager to reach the prize lying within. A red-bellied woodpecker flits onto a nearby snag and tap, tap, taps at the bark harboring its prey. Some nearby goldfinches and cardinals suddenly take wing and the forest falls suddenly and strangely silent. A second later the cause of this abrupt stillness rockets by on fixed wings – a sharp-shinned hawk. The small birds have escaped this time but inevitably the hawk will feed.

The soil beneath me also teems with life. Earthworm and mole continue their eons old game of hide and seek. Untold numbers and kinds of bacteria are at work breaking down dead bodies and converting nitrogen into a form useable by plants. Members of the vast tribe of fungi form a network of mycelia within the soil which live symbiotically with the roots of trees. Here they help the tree take up water and nutrients. In return they share the tree’s sugar resources. Other fungi infiltrate the dead leaves, twigs, and whole trunks of the trees which have run their life course and fallen. In the process of decomposing, the bacteria and fungi return vital nutrients to the soil. These are taken up by the plants and once again incorporated into living tissues of wood and berry. Through white-footed mouse and barred owl these nutrients will pass. Nature is the ultimate recycler. Thus a paradox; the mass of living tissue of all the organisms that have lived upon the earth exceeds that of the planet itself.

As my vigil continues I am rewarded with the insight I have sought. This forest is not simply a stand of timber. It is the manifestation of a profound concordance. Water and air, soil and light interact in an intricate opus played out within the lives of the plants, animals, and unseen microorganisms of this ecosystem.

There are producers of food energy, predators, prey species, and scavengers here. Once there were none. Four and a half billion years ago our earth was molten rock. Now, by merely strolling outside, I encounter a world of the most extreme beauty, complexity, and biological diversity. And here my mind is flummoxed. The sheer existence of all of this life, let alone the extreme intricacy of its interconnections, mystifies me. Surely this vast parade of time, and its consequent evolutionary explosion of life, has meaning. Such a world must be more than a collection of stage props in front of which we humans act out our lives. Are we to imagine that this astounding natural world has come into existence to do nothing more than provide us with pleasing scenery? Is the multitude of wild dramas enacted every day nothing more than fodder for an Animal Planet script?

It is a spiritual discipline to root the mind in a particular landscape . . .

Scott Russell Sanders, Secrets of the Universe

No, there is a miraculous reality in these woods. There is evidence here of something truly momentous. Granted, contingency (chance) is a player in the grand scenario of the universe story. We see that today with every roll of the germ cell dice by which new life is created. But in addition to the ever-present element of coincidence, the underlying trajectory of the Cosmos exhibits purpose and direction. Whatever the enigmatic nature of the Creative energy driving our universe may be, the fossil record and today’s astonishingly prolific biodiversity make one thing clear. Over time there has been an incremental proliferation of biological complexity and diversity here on planet Earth.

Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have            climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think           hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand.

Aldo Leopold, Song of the Gavilan

Contemplation of this profoundness is here for the taking for those willing to sit quietly and listen; for those prepared to patiently indulge eyes, minds, and hearts. And yet the astonishing depth of the marvel that is life on earth seems to go unnoticed by so many. This puzzles me greatly. A good many in my neck of the woods seem to regard the natural world, the source of our own human emergence, as a rather irrelevant interlude on their journey to some final glory. Others pursue an impossible dream: the belief that status or material possessions alone are enough to bring contentment and wholeness to one’s life. We now know that exposure to nature carries many benefits for humans. Tensions, as well as waistlines, are reduced. Depression can be lessened. Among children, inventiveness, creativity, and attentiveness increase with exposure to nature. There is no temporal hierarchy to this experience. Young and old are offered the joys of discovery and contemplation.

The natural world which surrounds can also, in the final analysis, provide a powerful lesson. We humans are very clever in manipulating our environments. But we should understand that ultimately our species is just as dependent upon the cycles of air and water, soil and energy as the lowliest organisms which burrow in the soil of my much-loved forest. Perhaps this, aside from the pure joys of discovery and examination, is the final moral to be understood from an intimate bonding with the natural world.

And so I end my reverie. Back toward home and the everyday affairs of life I turn. But I judge my time at my listening point as well spent. Here, through the simple practice of mindfulness, I have been allowed a tiny glimpse into the reality of the Cosmos. My soul has been nourished by the contemplation of a wonder: the astonishing complexity, diversity, and beauty of the natural world -our true, native home.

26. Down the Amazon: Episode 3 – Residents of Sinister Reputation: Spiders and Piranhas

Epithet after epithet was found too weak to convey to those who have not visited the intertropical regions, the sensation of delight which the mind experiences . . .

Charles Darwin – Voyage of the Beagle

My days at the Explorama venues were comprised of a wonderfully satisfying mixture of early morning birding, explorations upon their myriad rainforest trails, travel upon the rivers by dugout canoe, hours up on the canopy walkway, and a constant influx of fresh information regarding tropical rainforest biology. Exposure to the cultures of the tribal folks and riberenos people who lived along the rivers added to the store of awareness I was accumulating. It was an experiential learning affair of the finest kind.

Naturally, the first thing to be noticed when entering the tropical rainforest is the vegetation itself. Some of the plants would appear familiar to you. After all, plants adapted for living in the low light conditions of the rainforest floor make ideal house plants. Dieffenbachia, Coleus, Sansevieria (e.g. mother in-law’s tongue), and Philodendron are a few such plants. But the rainforest is arranged in complex layers – ground layer, herbaceous layer, understory layer, canopy layer, and emergent layer. As a result, the forest presents itself in a complex of thousands of plant species arranged in a spectacularly intricate assemblage. Pablo introduced me to a bewildering array of palms, a baffling collection of tree species whose leaves all seemed remarkably similar in appearance, and an abundance of plants both woody and herbaceous having medicinal properties. How could I ever hope to know all of these? I found myself experiencing sensory overload as I struggled to recall and identify at least a few of the more common species.

Obviously this intricate collection of plant species and heterogeneous layering forms a nearly infinite matrix of ecological niches. The result of this is, of course, a nearly boundless collection of animals which have evolved to fill these niches. Thus we see the tremendous biodiversity among the Animalia typical of a tropical rainforest.

Typically it is the insects which one first notices. They are present in tremendous numbers; by one estimate some 70 000 species may occupy a single acre of rainforest. The actual number is difficult to pinpoint. There is much research yet to be done on rainforest biodiversity and new species are discovered every year. In thinking about why there are so many kinds of insects here, one might consider the movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids. This was an adventure/comedy in which the children are reduced to the size of insects. Ponder what it would be like to be the size of an ant. Think of the thousands of tiny nooks and crannies one might be able to occupy by having such a tiny body size. Consider how many places, unavailable to an organism the size of a human, would be accessible for hiding, nesting, feeding, and escaping predators. Even for animals the size of an average mammal (i.e. house cat-sized), the complex composition and layering of the rainforest provides for boundless microhabitats in which to live.

Ants seem to be everywhere, and in astounding numbers to boot. It has been suggested that there are tens of trillions of ants for each person on earth. Having once lived for several years in tropical Southeast Asia, I can attest to their omnipresence. Coffee shops often had the legs of their pastry cabinets sitting in small cups of water. These served as moats to prevent ants from climbing upward and devouring the contents of the cabinet. In our house, it was not unusual to find an ant’s nest between the pages of a magazine left lying about for too long. On one occasion, my wife and I bolted from our bed immediately after tucking in for the night. During the day, ants had erected a nest of impressive size in the space between the springs and mattress. They had exhibited their displeasure at being disturbed by swarming over us. Yes truly, ants are everywhere in the tropics. But, having discussed some of the tropical rainforest ants I find most interesting in a previous blog (9. Ever Thought Much About Ants?), I will leave them and turn to some of their interesting kin.

The Arthropoda is a phylum that contains not only insects but spiders, scorpions, centipedes, and millipedes (among others) as well. In fact, about three-quarters of all the animal species in the world are arthropods. Arthropods seem to be the group most notable for bringing out apprehension in humans. It is the creeping, crawling things of the forest that almost universally give people the creeps. Admittedly, if one has a spider phobia, the tropical rainforest might present a challenge. Try to fortify yourself with the knowledge that these animals exhibit fascinating behaviors and their threat is often highly exaggerated. Some may have bites which are quite unpleasant but their danger is typically much overblown. Still, even as a professional zoologist, I must admit to requiring a substantial period of time to overcome a gnawing feeling of anxiety when it came to dealing with spiders.

On my most recent trip to Amazonian Peru I was accompanied by my grandson. Since childhood he has also had an intense interest in natural history but, like many of us, exhibits a distinct unease around spiders. Naturally our first night-walk turned up a plethora of tarantulas. They are extremely common in the rainforest and they are indeed imposing. With a leg span of five or six inches and a heavy-bodied look, they seem to dwarf the spiders one typically sees in Indiana. Most were pink-toed tarantulas which could be seen lurking at the mouth of their burrow. Here they sat prepared to rush out in an instant and grab their hapless prey. Overcoming his hesitancy, Riley learned to use a tried and true method for getting a tarantula to emerge. Taking a short length of twig, he probed at the mouth of several of these ground burrows. Typically they are around two inches in diameter and are often occupied even when it does not appear so. Manipulating the twig at the burrow entrance will mimic the rustling about of a cricket or katydid. In doing this, he was often rewarded by having a previously unseen tarantula aggressively bolt out of its tunnel entrance. It was an entertaining game but not one recommended for the arachnophobe.

Perhaps the most interesting experience I’ve had with a tarantula actually occurred in Ecuador many years ago. Experiencing a midnight bathroom urge, I descended from our stilted cabana and walked to the nearby outhouse. It was quite nice as it had running water and lighting. Flipping on the switch, I noticed a stockpile of toilet paper sitting on top of the tank lid. There were several rolls and I was startled when I noticed that a large pink-footed tarantula had taken up residence in one of the cardboard tubes of a roll. Agreeing to a truce, I completed my work without further adventure. But it was the first time I had been obliged to pee while staring down a large, menacing looking arachnid -and one lurking inches from one of my most prized body parts at that.

In Peru, my grandson was on high alert for another species of spider of which he had read much. The Brazilian wandering spider is considered one of the more dangerous rainforest spider species. All spiders are venomous but this one has a particularly potent blend of toxic proteins in its venom. A dose of venom measuring in the thousandths of a gram can kill a mouse. A bite from a Brazilian wandering spider may cause a variety of alarming symptoms in humans including blood pressure changes, altered heart rhythm, cramping, convulsions, and blurred vision. Of course, as luck would have it, we soon ran across one during our night jaunt. As we played our lights about in our search for nocturnal creatures, we illuminated a large leaf projecting out at shoulder-height along the trail. There, sitting quietly on this elevated leaf, was the infamous wandering spider. It was certainly an intimidating looking fellow. Large bodied with legs spanning nearly six inches, this specimen did indeed have the look of a spider which projected the demand that it be granted some space.

We admired the specimen from a respectful distance and I snapped some photos. As I did so, Riley nonchalantly reminded us of another most peculiar symptom of Brazilian wandering spider bite. Their venom contains a chemical that boosts blood flow such that male humans may experience priapism as a result of their bite. A priapism is an extended, painful period of erection – like the ones they warn about in Viagra commercials. This seemed another fine reason to avoid their bite. But, on a positive note, here was yet another example of the potential biopharmaceuticals which may reside undiscovered within the plants and animals of the tropical rainforest. Brazilian wandering spider venom is of interest to researchers studying potential treatments for erectile dysfunction in human males. All in all, it was a most fascinating spider encounter.

Another strange arachnid seen on our nocturnal walk was the tailless whip scorpion. How intimidating these animals look. They would make a great science fiction monster. The genre of movies in which atomic radiation exposure has caused a normally harmless animal to grow to gigantic proportions would be a natural for them. Like other arachnids, whip scorpions have eight legs but the front pair has been greatly lengthened and serves as a pair of antennae. These creepily and stealthily probe ahead of them in their cunning search for prey. Certain of their mouthparts have been modified into a pair of long raptorial claws tipped with ghastly, spines. When close enough, these are rapidly thrust outward to grasp and immobilize their prey (usually smaller insects). Whenever I see a tailless whip scorpion, I always find myself sympathizing with the hapless grasshopper or cricket which may soon find itself confronted by this miniature science fiction monster. Imagining oneself scaled down to their miniature world and confronted by one of these terrifying creatures is the stuff of nightmares.

One could likely fill several books with stories about rainforest arthropod encounters. They are after all the most diverse group of animals on the planet. There are true scorpions having intensely painful stings to avoid. Tropical centipedes are notorious for the excruciating pain of their bites. There are walking sticks of giant size and even ones which jump like grasshoppers (jumping sticks) rather than slowly clamber about. Also to be seen are beetles the size of a newborn kitten, katydids which look just like leaves, and others that are carnivores instead of plant eaters. Everywhere are to be seen the nests, tunnels, and foraging columns of termites. This Lilliputian world is endlessly fascinating. But for now, I will leave the arthropods and consider another member of the rainforest bestiary whose reputation is notorious. But, is it well deserved?

I suppose just about everyone is aware that the waters of the South American rainforest are frequented by piranhas (of several species). I would also bet that many who know of the piranha consider it one of the most dangerous animals on the planet. It doesn’t help that much of what the average person learns about this fish comes from films such as the Piranha series. Quite entertaining I suppose but informative, not so much.

The piranha I have most often encountered in Peru is a species known as the red-bellied piranha. It is true that, as depicted in movies, this fish does in occur in schools or shoals as it is sometimes termed. This schooling behavior is thought to be used more for protection from predators than for launching mass attacks upon hapless prey however. Typically piranhas feed on insects, crustaceans, and other fish. They will scavenge larger prey such as wading birds, capybaras, and caimans. Personally, I have never seen one of the en masse feeding frenzies sometimes depicted in films. This is not to say that a human entering the water is immune from a bite. Luis, one of my Peruvian friends, showed me a fifty-cent piece-sized scar on his shin that resulted from a piranha nibble. He had gotten the bite when he was a youngster. At that time, he had an itching mosquito bite that he had been incessantly scratching. It was oozing a bit of blood and, when he went for a swim, a piranha had taken an exploratory nip at the spot.

I often saw riberenos children playing and bathing in the rivers and streams apparently without concern. One will quite commonly see adults bathing, brushing teeth, or cleaning household wares in the streams as well. Once a fellow visitor at Explorama told me that he had gone piranha fishing with some other tourists that day. While some of them fished from one side of the boat, others swam off the opposite side. I believe this is a good illustration of the overblown reputation of this beautiful fish. In fact, there are several other kinds of fish in the Amazon that alarm me much more. There are freshwater stingrays capable of delivering an excruciation “sting” with their tail spine. Shuffle your feet when wading in the shallows! The Amazon basin is home to the electric eel which can reach a length of several feet and supply a shock capable of stunning a human. Then of course there is the infamous candiru to consider. This small catfish species is infamous due to the legend that it is attracted to urine. As a result, should a person urinate in the water, a candiru may follow the urine stream, enter the person’s urethra, and become lodged there. Removal without surgery is virtually impossible due to the fish’s backward projecting spines. It appears that the legend of the candiru may be more fable than fact. One will find it quite difficult to find a record of a documented attack” by this fish. Nevertheless, when entering the waters of the Amazon Basin, wearing swim trunks always seemed like a good idea to me.

I was hopeful that I might encounter the legendary piranha upon my initial trip to Peru. I was curious to see for myself whether their dangerously voracious reputation was deserved. So it was that I found myself delighted when one afternoon Pablo announced, “today we are going piranha fishing.”

As we set forth on our fishing expedition, we were equipped with short, stout wooden poles four or five feet in length and an inch in diameter. Tied to the end of each was a fishing line and attached to this was a lengthy leader of heavy wire connected to a large, barbed hook. The sharpness of the teeth of piranhas is no myth. Without the metal leader, hook and bait would quickly disappear. We used small chunks of beef as bait.

We fished from an open john-boat in a tributary channel of the Rio Napo. As a child, I was often warned not to make too much noise in the boat. “You’ll scare the fish away”, my dad cautioned. You can imagine my surprise when Pablo and our boatmen, who was also fishing, periodically and vigorously slapped and stirred the water with the tip of their poles. This they said would mimic the thrashing of an ill or injured fish which would, of course, attract the piranhas.

Almost immediately after lowering my bait into the water I felt my first nibble. Ah, this is going to be easy thought I. Wrong! Describing the teeth of a red-bellied piranha as razor-sharp is no exaggeration. Their ability to quickly nip off a piece of bait while avoiding the hook was frustratingly skillful. Time after time, I gave a violent yank on the little pole in an attempt to set the hook. Time after time, I was rewarded by the site of a naked fishhook dangling from the leader. I did eventually manage to land a couple of quite modestly sized piranhas. They were far short of their twelve inch or more potential. Still, they were big enough to eat and at dinner that night they appeared on my plate in companionship with the ever-present beans, rice, and plantains. Their taste was quite good; mild, not fishy at all, and reminded me much of catfish. Also accompanying the meal was a pair of lower mandibles. These had been carefully cleaned by Pablo and were presented to me as a souvenir. Ivory colored and sporting over a dozen triangular teeth of amazing sharpness, they serve today as reminders of a most unique and unforgettable fishing trip.

Photo Credits
     close up of whipscorpion by Graham Wise at flickr.com
     all other photos by the author

25. Down the Amazon: Episode 2 – I See More River Sights & Bed Down for the Night

Away from the city, river traffic diminished but never ceased. In this part of Peru the waterways are the thoroughfares. I found it quite remarkable to be in a land devoid of roads after a lifetime of simply assuming their existence. In Amazonian Peru, if there is no trail to walk, getting from Point A to Point B involves paddling or cruising. With the lessened boat activity, my attention now turned to my natural surroundings. Peeking out from under the rapido’s roof, I admired a sapphire sky so dazzling that it seemed a new name for this shade of blue needed invention. Suspended in this azure sky were giant pillows of marvelously snowy cumulus clouds. I felt that surely I was the first person ever privileged to see a sky so beautiful. The latte-colored waters of the river rolled onward beneath us. Upon its surface floated logs (our boatman had to be diligent), water lettuce, hyacinth, the occasional whole tree, and even small islands of soil with their attendant vegetation which had been ripped from the shoreline. What creatures sailed aboard these craft I wondered? To what destination were they bound? The great naturalist Charles Darwin long ago speculated that such rafts, carried out to sea from a river mouth, were the means by which many pioneering organisms reached their far ports – the Galapagos Islands for example.

Along the shore, the vegetation became more dense as we moved away from civilization. Because of the greater available sunlight along streams, plant growth tends to be thicker here than within the forest itself. Some speculate that early tropical explorers, using streams as corridors for their explorations, coined the term “jungle” (from the Sanskrit word jangala) for the thick, tangled, impenetrable vegetation they saw. Thus the word jungle came into common usage for the rainforest itself. This is misleading because, within the forest itself, less than ten percent of available sunlight reaches the ground. Although there is much vegetation in the forest understory and ground layers, it is not dense and impassable.

As we motored on, trees typical of the flood-prone shores of the river passed in review – Cecropia (keep an eye out for three-toed sloths Pablo counseled); Ceiba, Mimosa, and Ficus were common. Each of these had its own story to tell in the complex web of ecological relationships that flourished here. Such trees must be highly tolerant of having their feet wet. Melting of the snow in the Andes far to the west releases a seasonal flood of water. In November the river begins to rise, sometimes reaching thirty or forty feet above the level at which I now rode in June ( “winter” in the southern hemisphere). During the South American summer (our winter), piranhas, pacus, electric eels, and pink river dolphins would swim among the boles of the trees I now saw standing high and dry. The occasional Mauritius palm towered along the shore as well, a representative of the Neotropic’s hugely diverse palm tribe. In these parts, this palm is generally referred to as aguaje and is prized for its fruits which find their way into delights ranging from ice cream to juice.

Within two hours our rapido slowed and moved across the river into a small stream (a quebrada) called the Yanamono. Slowly we idled past the home, small store, and bar of the Guerra family which stood at the tributary’s mouth. Close by stood the rum factory, the source of the aguardiente served in their little bar. Later I was to learn much about the potency of this sugar cane derivative. Gliding ahead we passed, on the left bank, the collection of houses representing the little village of Palmeras. Here lived a community of indigenous Yagua people.

Finally, just past the village, the dock and buildings of the Explorama Lodge came into view. Here was my base camp for the next two weeks. I felt as though I should pinch myself; at long last I had made it to the Amazonian rainforest.

Explorama Lodge was begun in 1964 by the late Peter Jensen, an American who originally came to Peru as a Peace Corps volunteer. After traveling to Iquitos, Mr. Jensen developed an abiding love of the Amazonian rainforest and the Peruvian people and spent the remainder of his life with them. Peter was a visionary and pioneer in the field of ecotourism. His dream of helping others experience and learn about the tropical rainforest led him to build not only Explorama Lodge but other facilities as well. These include Ceiba Tops which sits on the Amazon twenty-five miles below Iquitos. With air conditioning, hot water, and a pool, it is an eco-destination for those who prefer less rustic rainforest accommodations. There is another Explorama facility on the Sucusari River (a tributary of the Napo) roughly one hundred miles east of Iquitos which is called ExplorNapo Lodge.  A short hike from here brings one to the ACTS (Amazon Conservatory of Tropical Studies) Field Station, a place many visitors consider the highlight of their trip to the Explorama properties. Originally known as ACEER (Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research), the ACTS field station is as the name suggests a focal point for tropical research. But here Explorama also maintains lodging for their guests similar to that at their other properties. However, the big attraction at ACTS is the famous canopy walkway. Suspended within the rainforest canopy, this system of walk-boards, cables, and netting extends for a third of a mile through this lofty realm. Upon this high – and tangibly thrilling – causeway guests and researchers are able to access a stratum of the rainforest which is otherwise inaccessible to those without special climbing equipment and skills. As you may discern, Peter Jensen’s legacy is a tropical rainforest ecotourism destination of extraordinary vision and accomplishment.

I was soon shown to my room at Explorama Lodge and found it delightful. The accommodations were somewhat Spartan but quite comfortable. The small chamber, one of seventy-two, contained two mosquito-netted beds; a nightstand held a pitcher of river water and metal wash pan, a kerosene lamp on the wall provided light. Such lamps also lined the walkways interconnecting the many lodge buildings. Their soft, soothing light lent a magical nighttime aura to the lodge grounds. The walls of the room extended to a height of eight feet on three sides. The back wall was about four feet in height and opened directly into the surrounding forest. It was unscreened but had curtains which could be drawn closed. Towering far overhead was the actual roof of the guest building.  The underside – my ceiling – revealed an artistic pattern of interwoven irapay palm leaves. The leaves had been assembled into units of roofing known as crisnejas. These had been laid upon and lashed to rafters made of pona palm. The entire building was an amazing display of both local craftsmanship and the utility of the forest products lying at hand. (A note here: Explorama Lodge’s rooms have since been upgraded and each now has a bathroom with shower. Even generator-produced electricity and Wi-Fi are available during certain hours. A nod to progress I suppose, but the evening lamp-glow and near total isolation from the modern world I sadly miss).

Pablo suggested that before dinner I have a rest from our days’ travel and he directed me to the hammock house. Here, on the perimeter of the Explorama buildings, was a structure of the familiar palm materials. Raised above ground on wooden stilts was a broad, un-walled room with numerous hammocks suspended from the rafters.

The area was unoccupied and I soon found myself blissfully relaxing as my hammock swayed gently to and fro. Soon, off in the surrounding forest, I heard a soft yet steady rain approaching. Within minutes I was surrounded by the percussive sound of a million raindrops softly striking another million multi-shaped leaves. A cool, incredibly refreshing breeze had come with the rain. And now, of a sudden, came a sound totally novel to my ears. From several points of the compass came low, soft, whooping calls. The voices resembled a muted, less robust version of the first note of the song crooned by the white-handed gibbons I had heard in Malaysia so many years ago. It was the sound of smoky jungle frogs (Leptodactylus) who had begun their evening’s romancing. These vocalizations have remained one of my treasured rainforest memories. Their sounds seemed archetypical of the rainforest and even now I can bring them to cognizance and find myself thus transported back to their forest. Lying in my hammock, lulled by the soothing rainfall and mesmerized by the melody of the frogs I felt sure I had found my Eden.

Down the Amazon: Episode 3 in which I confront some of the rainforest’s most fascinating inhabitants will be coming soon. Thanks for journeying along with me!



24. Down the Amazon: Episode 1 – Getting There

Mi Corazon es en Peru.

In 1998 I made the first of several trips to the South American country of Peru. This first jaunt was a revelation and Peru has become perhaps my favorite foreign destination. That initial trip was made possible through the philanthropy of a Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Fellowship. These competitive fellowships offer Indiana teachers support for life-long learning  . . . by enabling them to pursue dreams and passions, explore new areas of interest, expand existing talents, and develop new ones. How accurate their description and what excitement word of receiving a Fellowship created in our house! Anne and daughter Michelle surprised me with a tray holding the just arrived letter of selection emblazoned with the Lilly Endowment letterhead. Accompanying the announcement of my good fortune was a bottle of pinot grigio and three glasses. The celebration was on!

Peru is a country of countless vistas. For many the Andes, Machu Picchu, and the cultural descendants of the Incas provide the allure. Exotic sounding destinations such as Cusco, Ollantaytambo, and Urubamba provide the Siren call which lures such folks to Peru. For me, the magnet-like pull originated from a different direction. To the east was the wonder that had tugged at my mind for years. As metal is drawn to lodestone, so were my imaginings drawn to the vast Peruvian Amazon. It was Iquitos and the great beyond which had long beckoned me, and now my dream was to be fulfilled. I was really going to experience the tropical rainforest of the Amazon Basin firsthand.

As a professional biologist how could I not be enraptured by the dream of seeing Amazonian Peru? The biodiversity harbored in this country is simply incredible. Compare these species counts from Peru with the comparable numbers (in parentheses) from my native Indiana. There are 40 000 (2000) species of plants, 1800 (260) species of birds, 500 (59) kinds of mammals, and nearly 800 (114) types of reptiles and amphibians. A single square mile of Peruvian rainforest may hold thousands of insect species. The Amazon River itself is home to some two thousand sorts of fishes as well as dolphins, a manatee, and several species of stingrays. A note on the term biodiversity; colloquially it simply means lots of different kinds of living things. Biologically speaking it implies more. When I use the term biodiversity, I also intend for it to encompass the interrelationships the organisms within a given area have with each other and their environment. As I prepared to leave Iquitos for the wilds of the Loreto Region, my pulse quickened with the thought of seeing and understanding some of the multitudinous ecological interrelations I might find lying ahead. I craved these often elusive yet exquisite gifts from the universe.

I left Indianapolis on the 4th of July after sharing a tearful goodbye with Anne. At that time, we had been married for over 30 years and this occasion was to be our first separation lasting more than a couple of days. Two weeks in Peru seemed like a terribly long time. A change of flights in Miami found me on an Aeroperu 757 bound for Iquitos. The angst of separation began to ease and was gradually replaced by an excited anticipation of the impending adventure.

Nowadays, it never ceases to amaze me how rapidly one can be conveyed to a far region of the earth. Spanish galleons once plied the seas over which I flew. Their journey between North and South America required weeks to complete. That day at 10:00AM I was in Indiana. At 9:30PM I stood in the airport in Iquitos, Peru. It has undeniably become a small world in which we live.

My arrival in Iquitos has entrenched itself in my memory. It is a lovely image which I enjoy downloading now and then from my cerebral memory bank. Like a favorite old Hollywood film, I can close my eyes and replay the scene that unfolded from my window as we began our descent. Night had fallen and, as the airplane banked into a descending turn to the southeast, a vast inky blackness was revealed to my view. Some fifteen thousand square miles of pitch-black obscurity lie below me – the rainforest of northeastern Peru. On the far distant horizon a tropical thunderstorm raged. Periodic fingers of lightning leaped through the air like bursts from some gigantic Tesla coil. Illuminated from within were great towers of cumulonimbus clouds. From these fell a deluge of rain, the vital essence of the wondrous ecosystem passing beneath our wings. The immense shadow that was the forest was pierced by one tiny cluster of lights. Like a miniscule island in the vast enormity of the ocean, the city of Iquitos twinkled in the profound darkness.

Iquitos lies on the Itaya River at its junction with the Amazon River. Over two thousand miles must be navigated downstream to reach the river’s mouth in Brazil. No roads arrive in Iquitos from the far away capital of Lima. No by-ways link Iquitos to the urban areas of next door neighbors Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil. If one wants to venture here, one flies or voyages upon the Amazon. It is indeed an islet in a tropical rainforest sea.

As I stood waiting for my luggage in the terminal of the Col. Francisco Vignetta International Airport, I took note of a familiar reminder that I was in the tropics. My glasses had lightly fogged and trickles of perspiration began to make leisurely meanders down my sides, wetting my shirt in the process. Having lived in tropical Southeast Asia for three years, the sensation wasn’t new to me. However, a few years in temperate Indiana had allowed me to forget just how incredibly humid the tropics can be.  In fact regions which harbor tropical rainforest share several climatic characteristics, high humidity being just one of these. The average RH for the Iquitos area is in the low 80’s. Think of the hottest, most humid summer day that you can recall here in the Midwest and you have some idea of the feel, be it January or June, of the lowland tropics.

Length of day is remarkably constant as well. January finds the inhabitants of Iquitos enjoying a little over twelve hours of sunlight. In June, it is daylight for just under twelve hours. By comparison, in the Hoosier state the length of day varies from nearly fifteen hours in June to a bit less than nine and a half hours in December. Of course tropical temperatures, particularly at low elevations near the equator, are extraordinarily uniform as well. The average high throughout the year in Iquitos is around 870F with nighttime temperatures running around 720F. (climatogram courtesy of Climate-Data.org) Here in the Midwestern U.S., differences between highs and lows throughout the year vary by a good 600F. In fact, here in Indiana a fast moving cold front, sweeping down from the Arctic, can drop the temperature that much in a matter of hours. And, of course, there is lots of rain. Iquitos receives a bit over one-hundred and ten inches per year compared with about forty inches here in Indiana.

From a biological perspective such a uniform climate, with high amounts of solar energy and lots of water, results in tremendous plant productivity. There are no “time-outs” for a period of winter dormancy. Photosynthesis and biosynthesis are daily jobs in the tropics. With so much plant throughput, as well as diversity, it stands to reason that the biomass of animal life in the tropics is also quite high.  However, there is an interesting difference between the biodiversity of the tropical rainforest and the temperature deciduous forest of my Indiana home.

A walk in a woodland near my homestead might reveal a forest heavily comprised of two or three kinds of oaks, sugar maple, shagbark hickory, and understory trees such as dogwood and redbud.  Similarly there might be many individuals of a few representative animal groups such as woodpeckers, rodents, and carnivores. By comparison, in the tropical rain forest, there are many species but fewer individuals of each species in a given area. For example, Indiana has 110 species of trees. During a study in Peru, tropical biologist Dr. Alwyn Gentry (tragically lost in a 1993 airplane crash along with renowned Neotropical bird expert Ted Parker) found 300 tree species in a plot of forest a single hectare (2.5 acres) in size. In comparing animal diversity, we see similar trends. For example, there are 12 kinds of bats in Indiana while Peru is home to 180 species of chiropterans.

The planet’s undisputable super-river is the Amazon. 

David Attenborough (Planet Earth: Freshwater)

The Amazon is the world’s largest river by volume. The output of water at its mouth is sufficient to fill the Superdome in New Orleans in less than twenty seconds. My first sight of this prodigious body of water did not disappoint. Leaving the Explorama Lodges’ Iquitos boat dock, I was soon gawking at a river still in excess of a mile wide even though I floated nearly 2300 miles from its mouth. Its depth is such that ocean-going ships can ascend the river to Iquitos. Even now two small, disheveled, and apparently well-traveled old freighters stood at anchor just offshore. My guide Pablo and I were aboard one of Explorama’s inboard-powered passenger boats (called a rapido) and off we roared toward the lodge some fifty miles downstream. To be out on the water and rapidly motoring downstream was refreshing and exhilarating. The cooling breeze generated by the boat’s motion quickly liberated me from the stifling humidity. I was able to contemplate and appreciate my first voyage upon the waters of this storied river.

The docks, warehouses, and dwellings of Iquitos began to dwindle away as we moved downstream. Plying the water with us were a variety of craft, exotic to my eyes, but common upon the Amazon. Three women, with a child and a sleeping infant, paddled their way upstream in a dugout canoe bound for the city and its storehouse of goods and urban marvels. Hugging the shoreline was another dugout; this one occupied by two children who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. They quietly fished for their family’s dinner as we sped onward. An open skiff, known locally as a pequi-pequi , motored by a fisherman at the helm. The boat’s small four-stroke engine sang with the “peck-peck-peck” sound which gave the craft its indigenous name. Farther downstream another, larger boat came chugging into view making way for Iquitos. This was a craft known as a colectivo. Colectivos are the water-taxis of a region with no roads. Frequently comprised of two or three decks, these boats are large by local river standards often measuring forty feet or more in length. The vessel was crowded with passengers. Some lounged, chatting in small groups. Others lazed in hammocks strung about in random exploitation of available spaces. Accompanying the human passengers was a menagerie of chickens, a couple of pigs, and what appeared to be a young Brahman steer. Pablo informed me that each of these critters, like the passengers, endured a fare equivalent to their perceived value.

The sights, sounds, and ambiance of the river were so totally new and unfamiliar that I was seized by the sensation of being suddenly transported to a bizarre, new planet.  I perceived a strangeness of circumstance, a sense of dissimilarity, the sensation of being markedly outside my comfort zone. I believe such perceptions are the essence of adventure travel. Such impressions constitute the compelling force that requires those of us with wanderlust to be constantly packing our bags. And so, onward I sped toward Explorama Lodge and my first night in the Neotropical rainforest.

Episode 2 will be coming soon and describes more of my observations and experiences in the Peruvian Amazon.












  1. Down the Amazon: Episode 1- Getting There

Mi Corazon es en Peru.


In 1998 I made the first of several trips to the South American country of Peru. This first jaunt was a revelation and Peru has become perhaps my favorite foreign destination. That initial trip was made possible through the philanthropy of a Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Fellowship. These competitive fellowships offer Indiana teachers support for life-long learning  . . . by enabling them to pursue dreams and passions, explore new areas of interest, expand existing talents, and develop new ones. How accurate their description and what excitement word of receiving a Fellowship created in our house! Anne and daughter Michelle surprised me with a tray holding the just arrived letter of selection emblazoned with the Lilly Endowment letterhead. Accompanying the announcement of my good fortune was a bottle of pinot grigio and three glasses. The celebration was on!

Peru is a country of countless vistas. For many the Andes, Machu Picchu, and the cultural descendants of the Incas provide the allure. Exotic sounding destinations such as Cusco, Ollantaytambo, and Urubamba provide the Siren call which lures such folks to Peru. For me, the magnet-like pull originated from a different direction. To the east was the wonder that had tugged at my mind for years. As metal is drawn to lodestone, so were my imaginings drawn to the vast Peruvian Amazon. It was Iquitos and the great beyond which had long beckoned me, and now my dream was to be fulfilled. I was really going to experience the tropical rainforest of the Amazon Basin firsthand.

As a professional biologist how could I not be enraptured by the dream of seeing Amazonian Peru? The biodiversity harbored in this country is simply incredible. Compare these species counts from Peru with the comparable numbers (in parentheses) from my native Indiana. There are 40 000 (2000) species of plants, 1800 (260) species of birds, 500 (59) kinds of mammals, and nearly 800 (114) types of reptiles and amphibians. A single square mile of Peruvian rainforest may hold thousands of insect species. The Amazon River itself is home to some two thousand sorts of fishes as well as dolphins, a manatee, and several species of stingrays. A note on the term biodiversity; colloquially it simply means lots of different kinds of living things. Biologically speaking it implies more. When I use the term biodiversity, I also intend for it to encompass the interrelationships the organisms within a given area have with each other and their environment. As I prepared to leave Iquitos for the wilds of the Loreto Region, my pulse quickened with the thought of seeing and understanding some of the multitudinous ecological interrelations I might find lying ahead. I craved these often elusive yet exquisite gifts from the universe.

I left Indianapolis on the 4th of July after sharing a tearful goodbye with Anne. At that time, we had been married for over 30 years and this occasion was to be our first separation lasting more than a couple of days. Two weeks in Peru seemed like a terribly long time. A change of flights in Miami found me on an Aeroperu 757 bound for Iquitos. The angst of separation began to ease and was gradually replaced by an excited anticipation of the impending adventure.

Nowadays, it never ceases to amaze me how rapidly one can be conveyed to a far region of the earth. Spanish galleons once plied the seas over which I flew. Their journey between North and South America required weeks to complete. That day at 10:00AM I was in Indiana. At 9:30PM I stood in the airport in Iquitos, Peru. It has undeniably become a small world in which we live.

My arrival in Iquitos has entrenched itself in my memory. It is a lovely image which I enjoy downloading now and then from my cerebral memory bank. Like a favorite old Hollywood film, I can close my eyes and replay the scene that unfolded from my window as we began our descent. Night had fallen and, as the airplane banked into a descending turn to the southeast, a vast inky blackness was revealed to my view. Some fifteen thousand square miles of pitch-black obscurity lie below me – the rainforest of northeastern Peru. On the far distant horizon a tropical thunderstorm raged. Periodic fingers of lightning leaped through the air like bursts from some gigantic Tesla coil. Illuminated from within were great towers of cumulonimbus clouds. From these fell a deluge of rain, the vital essence of the wondrous ecosystem passing beneath our wings. The immense shadow that was the forest was pierced by one tiny cluster of lights. Like a miniscule island in the vast enormity of the ocean, the city of Iquitos twinkled in the profound darkness.

Iquitos lies on the Itaya River at its junction with the Amazon River. Over two thousand miles must be navigated downstream to reach the river’s mouth in Brazil. No roads arrive in Iquitos from the far away capital of Lima. No by-ways link Iquitos to the urban areas of next door neighbors Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil. If one wants to venture here, one flies or voyages upon the Amazon. It is indeed an islet in a tropical rainforest sea.

As I stood waiting for my luggage in the terminal of the Col. Francisco Vignetta International Airport, I took note of a familiar reminder that I was in the tropics. My glasses had lightly fogged and trickles of perspiration began to make leisurely meanders down my sides, wetting my shirt in the process. Having lived in tropical Southeast Asia for three years, the sensation wasn’t new to me. However, a few years in temperate Indiana had allowed me to forget just how incredibly humid the tropics can be.  In fact regions which harbor tropical rainforest share several climatic characteristics, high humidity being just one of these. The average RH for the Iquitos area is in the low 80’s. Think of the hottest, most humid summer day that you can recall here in the Midwest and you have some idea of the feel, be it January or June, of the lowland tropics.

Length of day is remarkably constant as well. January finds the inhabitants of Iquitos enjoying a little over twelve hours of sunlight. In June, it is daylight for just under twelve hours. By comparison, in the Hoosier state the length of day varies from nearly fifteen hours in June to a bit less than nine and a half hours in December. Of course tropical temperatures, particularly at low elevations near the equator, are extraordinarily uniform as well. The average high throughout the year in Iquitos is around 870F with nighttime temperatures running around 720F. (climatogram courtesy of Climate-Data.org) Here in the Midwestern U.S., differences between highs and lows throughout the year vary by a good 600F. In fact, here in Indiana a fast moving cold front, sweeping down from the Arctic, can drop the temperature that much in a matter of hours. And, of course, there is lots of rain. Iquitos receives a bit over one-hundred and ten inches per year compared with about forty inches here in Indiana.

From a biological perspective such a uniform climate, with high amounts of solar energy and lots of water, results in tremendous plant productivity. There are no “time-outs” for a period of winter dormancy. Photosynthesis and biosynthesis are daily jobs in the tropics. With so much plant throughput, as well as diversity, it stands to reason that the biomass of animal life in the tropics is also quite high.  However, there is an interesting difference between the biodiversity of the tropical rainforest and the temperature deciduous forest of my Indiana home.

A walk in a woodland near my homestead might reveal a forest heavily comprised of two or three kinds of oaks, sugar maple, shagbark hickory, and understory trees such as dogwood and redbud.  Similarly there might be many individuals of a few representative animal groups such as woodpeckers, rodents, and carnivores. By comparison, in the tropical rain forest, there are many species but fewer individuals of each species in a given area. For example, Indiana has 110 species of trees. During a study in Peru, tropical biologist Dr. Alwyn Gentry (tragically lost in a 1993 airplane crash along with renowned Neotropical bird expert Ted Parker) found 300 tree species in a plot of forest a single hectare (2.5 acres) in size. In comparing animal diversity, we see similar trends. For example, there are 12 kinds of bats in Indiana while Peru is home to 180 species of chiropterans.

The planet’s undisputable super-river is the Amazon. 

David Attenborough (Planet Earth: Freshwater)

The Amazon is the world’s largest river by volume. The output of water at its mouth is sufficient to fill the Superdome in New Orleans in less than twenty seconds. My first sight of this prodigious body of water did not disappoint. Leaving the Explorama Lodges’ Iquitos boat dock, I was soon gawking at a river still in excess of a mile wide even though I floated nearly 2300 miles from its mouth. Its depth is such that ocean-going ships can ascend the river to Iquitos. Even now two small, disheveled, and apparently well-traveled old freighters stood at anchor just offshore. My guide Pablo and I were aboard one of Explorama’s inboard-powered passenger boats (called a rapido) and off we roared toward the lodge some fifty miles downstream. To be out on the water and rapidly motoring downstream was refreshing and exhilarating. The cooling breeze generated by the boat’s motion quickly liberated me from the stifling humidity. I was able to contemplate and appreciate my first voyage upon the waters of this storied river.

The docks, warehouses, and dwellings of Iquitos began to dwindle away as we moved downstream. Plying the water with us were a variety of craft, exotic to my eyes, but common upon the Amazon. Three women, with a child and a sleeping infant, paddled their way upstream in a dugout canoe bound for the city and its storehouse of goods and urban marvels. Hugging the shoreline was another dugout; this one occupied by two children who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. They quietly fished for their family’s dinner as we sped onward. An open skiff, known locally as a pequi-pequi , motored by a fisherman at the helm. The boat’s small four-stroke engine sang with the “peck-peck-peck” sound which gave the craft its indigenous name. Farther downstream another, larger boat came chugging into view making way for Iquitos. This was a craft known as a colectivo. Colectivos are the water-taxis of a region with no roads. Frequently comprised of two or three decks, these boats are large by local river standards often measuring forty feet or more in length. The vessel was crowded with passengers. Some lounged, chatting in small groups. Others lazed in hammocks strung about in random exploitation of available spaces. Accompanying the human passengers was a menagerie of chickens, a couple of pigs, and what appeared to be a young Brahman steer. Pablo informed me that each of these critters, like the passengers, endured a fare equivalent to their perceived value.

The sights, sounds, and ambiance of the river were so totally new and unfamiliar that I was seized by the sensation of being suddenly transported to a bizarre, new planet.  I perceived a strangeness of circumstance, a sense of dissimilarity, the sensation of being markedly outside my comfort zone. I believe such perceptions are the essence of adventure travel. Such impressions constitute the compelling force that requires those of us with wanderlust to be constantly packing our bags. And so, onward I sped toward Explorama Lodge and my first night in the Neotropical rainforest.

Episode 2 will be coming soon and describes more of my observations and experiences in the Peruvian Amazon.













23. The Beauty of Our Cousins: the Trees

Part 1: The Loveliness

Our beautiful cousins, thus were trees described by the late Carl Sagan in Episode 4 (Heaven and Hell) of his highly praised television series Cosmos.  Few would argue with his claim that trees are beautiful. Many others might take issue with his assertion that they are our cousins.  There is bountiful evidence that he was correct on both counts.

My first awareness of trees as individuals representing an alien clan, another form of life, came as a child. In our backyard was an apple tree. Its’ low, sprawling limbs were an unspoken but clear invitation to climb. I found that one cannot climb into a tree without becoming aware of bark and texture, leaf and bud, a yielding to the touch. The sensual contact between their skin and ours demands consideration of how we are alike and yet, so different. Gaining age, experience, and strength I proceeded to climb into the maple trees that grew around our homestead. I was thrilled by the new perspective upon the world gained by leaving the ground. To be sure there was also a certain element of risk. To vacate terra firma is to flirt with the ramifications of gravity. But, even as a child, I had the intuitive sense that a world devoid of risks was an exceedingly uninteresting world indeed. One cannot sit high in a tree and remain unaware of being enfolded within a living entity as it surrounds, supports, and shares communion with us.

Growing up in rural Indiana I was surrounded by trees. Granted, the landscape also contained substantial expanses of corn, soy bean, and hay fields. But there were enough patches of woodland left to make the deciduous forest a significant component of my aboriginal world. Though but a child, there were trees enough for me to understand that they were the source of much of my world’s beauty. Now, sixty years later, it is much more difficult to find an unbroken piece of deciduous forest around my home. Here in Sullivan County, all the primal forests have been clear-cut at least once for their timber or pulp. Much forest here has been replaced by farmland. Still more of the forest in this part of southwestern Indiana has been erased from existence by strip-mining. Some of the older mined land, reclaimed with tree plantings, does at least bear a resemblance to the original deciduous forest. But lately the reclamation process causes one to believe they are amongst the rolling grasslands of Kansas rather than the mixed farmlands and woods of the Hoosier state.

Eighty-seven percent of Indiana’s twenty-three million acres was once covered by forest. Today, that figure is about twenty percent. According to the Indiana Dept. of Forestry, there are less than two thousand acres of old growth (> 150 years old) remaining in the state.  Less than half of this consists of forests uninfluenced by humans, what we call virgin timber. These remaining old growth plots of forest remind us of what has been lost. Some trees in the recently protected Meltzer Woods in Shelby County and the Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve in Vanderburgh County are thought to be four hundred years old. I find that expanse of time difficult to grasp. Such trees were standing impressively large when the Revolutionary War with Great Britain was fought. The great lifespan of many trees is, I suppose, one of the attributes that draws me to them in near worshipful admiration. Our human existence, measured in decades, seems mighty puny compared to that of a tree such as a bristlecone pine that was laying down wood six centuries before Tutankhamun ascended the throne of ancient Egypt.

But all is not lost. We still have substantial areas of forest in the eastern United States (and the west of course). We have done some recovering since the days around the turn of the 20th century when eastern forests were being cleared at the rate of thirteen and a half square miles per day. In fact, according to a report from The Forest History Society, over two-thirds of our nation’s area which was forested in 1600 is still covered by woodlands of various types today. Of course, due to a history of clearing for farming, use for fuel and charcoal, and timber production, these forests differ substantially from what they were in the 17th Century. Although I still see trees, I am often reminded of Aldo Leopold’s observation that, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

To sense what the virgin forests of Indiana must have been like, one must search out the few remaining tracts. My own familiarity with such an undisturbed, old growth forest comes from visits to Donaldson Woods Nature Preserve located in Spring Mill State Park in Lawrence County, Indiana. The few pieces of old forest that remain in Indiana persist thanks to individuals who simply couldn’t bear to see these beautiful woodlands destroyed. Whether their reasons were allied to a sense of historical preservation, sentimentality, or even spirituality I do not know. I do know that I owe them a great debt of gratitude for making it possible for me to experience a primordial piece of our natural world.  For this particular 67 acres of woodland we owe thanks to the unconventionality of George Donaldson who immigrated to Indiana from Scotland just after the civil war. In a time when the conformist wisdom called for one to market one’s timber and establish a farm Donaldson resisted.  As Scott Russell Sanders has noted in his book A Conservationist Manifesto, Donaldson, . . . made no use of the land at all, except to walk around and admire it. No wood cutting, no hunting, no extraction of limestone; these were his rules. Thanks to these guidelines I can now wander through a living museum of natural history, a vestigial portion of Indiana as it existed in pre-settlement times.

It is the size of the trees that, to me, makes Donaldson Woods so special. In the second growth forest around my home, I am lucky to find a tree greater than two feet or so in diameter. The virgin timber in Donaldson Woods includes yellow poplar and white oaks nearly six feet in diameter at breast height. There are American beech trees nearly three feet across. Shagbark hickory and sugar maple, sycamore and ash are here too; all standing with their most impressive bearing.  Towering well over one hundred feet in height, they are mighty impressive representatives of their kind. While passing beneath these giants, I am reminded of Tolkien’s forests: Fangorn,  Mirkwood, Lothlorien –  old beyond guessing, massive of limb, immense of trunk,  towering upward through the dappled sunlight, leafy canopies forming a living roof above the head. In spring the understory of this wondrous place is dappled with dogwood white and the rosy purple of redbuds. The forest floor is colored by the virginal white of bloodroot, the ornate purple of violets, the azure blue of Virginia bluebells, the gaudy yellow of dogtooth violets,. Of course this forest is a system not just a collection of trees and herbs. And so the scene is made even more vibrant by the chatter of gray squirrels, the repetitious bird-like chips of the chipmunk, the brash kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk of a pileated woodpecker, and the poignantly liquid soliloquy of a wood thrush.

Being an ecosystem of ancient and rich texture, this old grow forest also carries out a host of activities not visible to the human eye. I was once clearly reminded of this when I took one of my biology classes on a visit to Donaldson Woods. Why, asked one of my students, don’t the trees form a pit beneath themselves as they use up more and more of the soil in which they grow? What a great question! Why not indeed? It seems logical, since trees are so firmly rooted in their place, to imagine them carrying more and more of the soil’s components up into their tissues. In fact, this very question was of great interest by at least the year 1648. It was at this time that the Belgian scientist Jan Baptista van Helmont undertook to discover whether or not trees were “eating” the soil so to speak in order to accomplish their growth.

This is how van Helmont conducted his experiment. Into a container holding two hundred pounds of soil he placed a willow sapling. Over the next five years he watered the tree. At the end of this period of time, he removed the tree from the soil and weighed it. At the beginning of his experiment, the willow had weighed five pounds; now its weight was one hundred and sixty-nine pounds. van Helmont then weighed the soil in the container and found that it had lost only two ounces of weight. Since he had done nothing but water the plant, van Helmont concluded that the one hundred and sixty-four pounds of tissue formed by the tree had come only from the water he had supplied. Unknowingly, Jan van Helmont had germinated the beginnings of our understanding of photosynthesis; the process which makes it possible for most of the life on earth to exist.

Biologists now know that it is not from water alone that green plants build their tissues of root, stem, and leaf. A succession of experiments over the next century or so eventually elucidated the process of photosynthesis. It has been found that much of the water taken up by plants is transpired from their leaves. Each molecule of water leaving the stoma of a leaf exerts a forceful tug upon the train of water molecules extending back down the tree to the roots. This is part of the mechanism which pulls water molecules upward in a plant in the absence of a pump (heart).

Scientists also eventually understood that the gas carbon dioxide was of extreme importance in the photosynthetic process. Additionally, the necessity of sunlight for the occurrence of photosynthesis was revealed. One might summarize this incredibly complex series of biochemical reactions thusly. Green plants (the green pigment chlorophyll is necessary too) take up water from the soil via their roots and take carbon dioxide from the air through pores in their leaves. In the presence of sunlight (a source of energy to drive the process) plants rip apart some of the water and the carbon dioxide molecules. They now have a supply of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms; basic elements for building organic compounds. We might compare this to tearing down an old barn and reusing the weathered boards and timbers to construct a recreational cabin.

By rearranging these elements and adding a sprinkle of ingredients from the soil, such as nitrates, plants are able to build sugars, starches, oils, and proteins. These compounds are then used to construct the tissues from which stems, leaves, roots, and flowers are made. Oxygen gas is given off as a byproduct of photosynthesis and is used by animals as a respiratory fuel. They in turn exhale carbon dioxide which can be taken up by plants for use in photosynthesis. A miraculous balancing act this is and one which, along with photosynthesis’s mirror image process cell respiration, keeps most of the living world chugging along. And this, prized student, is why the trees in Donaldson Woods do not “eat” the soil beneath their feet.

6H2O + 6CO2    —–———–>   C6H12O6 + 6O2

Thus would I submit that trees are not only beautiful in form with their noble trunks, their robust branches, their luxuriant leaves of emerald, olive, and jade; they are also of inordinate exquisiteness in function. Not eaters of the soil but eaters of the sun they are. Each leaf is a tiny solar array capable of capturing light energy and transforming it into energy of chemical form. Having made this energy transformation, the tree is now able to perform a biochemical sleight of hand of staggering complexity. By building the aforementioned organic compounds, proteins and such, the tree is now able to make wood and meristem, cambium and bark, xylem and phloem, mesophyll and chloroplast.

A magnificent poplar or oak, standing tall and solid, is made essentially from carbon dioxide gas and water. Imagine if we could do that. Doubtless a skin of green might take some getting used to but we could subsist solely on a few hours of sunbathing or sitting beneath a grow-light each day. Adding the occasional glass of water, and perhaps a multivitamin we could convert light energy into food and tissue – automatic, effortless, wondrous. So it is with the trees, wondrous in both form and function.

Part 2: The Relationship

But recall that Carl Sagan referred to trees not just as beings of great beauty. He also denoted them as our cousins. Is this possible? A cousin is often defined loosely as a thing related to another. We might think of the ukulele and the guitar as cousins for example. But, in the case of the trees, Sagan meant something more akin to our notion of a cousin as a member of our extended family; an actual relative by descent. Should we, could we think of trees in this way? There is plentiful biological evidence to suggest that Sagan was without question correct.

When humans first began to categorize the relationships of organisms, in what we might think of as an observational, scientific manner, the criteria for classification were broad. Animals might, for example, be classified as blooded or bloodless, or as creatures of the air, land, or water. As science progressed, it didn’t take long for astute observers to notice that lumping organisms such as fish, whales, and ducks into a group because they inhabited water was a highly inaccurate measure of their real relationships. Enlightened taxonomists such as Linnaeus, Owen, and Cuvier turned to similarities and differences in anatomical structure as the keystone to understanding taxonomic relationships among organisms. For example, looking at forelimb structure (humerus, ulna, radius, carpals, metacarpals, phalanges) allowed the insight that mammals such as humans and whales are actually more closely related than whales and fish.

The same insight into our relationship with trees, and other plants, can be reasoned. At the cellular level, cells being the basic structural unit of living things, we find that plants and humans both possess a plasma membrane, nucleus, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, and ribosomes as well as certain other structures.

We can go even farther. It is known that these structures arise because organisms have the instructions for building cells and their organelles encoded in their DNA. Cells build tissues, tissues comprise organs, organs create organ systems, organ systems function to form and sustain an organism. DNA is passed from ancestors to descendants. Back through the generations our DNA exists as an immortal thread connecting us with our deepest ancestry, linking us with the very origins of life on our planet. DNA analysis has become a powerful tool in fighting crime, proving paternity, and demonstrating our ancestry. The same biotechnological logic provides potent evidence of our relationship with the trees.

Beneath the skin, beneath the bark, written in the coded A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s of our nucleotides lies the irrefutable proof of our kinship with oak and maple, redwood and sequoia. When comparing a snippet of the DNA sequence in a gene from a human – tct cca ccc tca ttt gat gac cgc aga – with that from an oak – tcc aca acc ctt tct gta ttc att cct – one is struck not by the strangeness of their differences but by the familiarity of their likenesses. A similar unity can be seen when we compare the DNA of any two organisms we might choose. The genetic code, which continues to surprise us with its complexity and dynamism, bears convincing evidence of the unity of all life.  After all, organisms receive this wondrous code from their ancestors.

And so my friends, I hope you are fortunate enough to one day find yourself standing in the cathedral that we call Donaldson Woods, the basilica of Muir Woods, or the sanctuary known as Sequoia National Park. I hope you are able to someday find yourself sniffing a hint of vanilla within a stand of ponderosa pine in our American west. I wish you are granted the opportunity to paddle your canoe through a virgin cypress swamp whose trees were young when the first Europeans sailed the Atlantic. If you are granted these boons, perhaps you too will find yourself immersed in a sense of enraptured delight as you marvel at the beauty of our cousins the trees.

Photo Credits:
van Helmont statue - Henxter at WikimediaCommons
limb homology - Wikipedia.com
DNA molecule - Richard Wheeler at WikimediaCommons
All other photos by the author.




22. A Poem Written in Hydroxyapatite: How a Little Bone Revealed a Hidden World

poem = something that arouses strong emotions because of its beauty

The poem of which I now speak is an ode that can be held in the hand. Found on the forest floor, which I had been intently scanning for morels, it was a prize. Granted, a morel is most certainly a gift as well. But this treasure was something much more. Though unpalatable, it was a delicious reminder of the wondrous, labyrinthine complexity of our natural world. Thirty-five millimeters in length, 20 millimeters in height, 15 millimeters in width, and a ghostly white in color was this piece of inorganic poetry. It was the phalangeal bone of a white-tailed deer, a toe bone. How it came to be there all alone on that square foot of woodland floor was a puzzle. How it had achieved its perfection of form presented me an even greater mystery.

As I examined the bone now lying in my hand, it seemed perfectly sculpted as if by the complex software of a 3-D printer. The proximal surface of the bone was marked by two deep, exceedingly smooth-surfaced concavities. Anatomists call these fossae. In this case, they were surfaces made to articulate with the phalangeal bone which once rested above it in the deer’s foot. The distal end of the bone bore two knuckle-like ridges. Condyles these are called. They would have adjoined the toe bone overlain by one of the deer’s hooves. I was willing to bet that each ridge, fossa, and curve of the bone I held would be virtually identical to the middle phalangeal bone of any other white-tailed deer. How this uniformity, this perfection of shape, this faithful commitment to structural design?

The simple answer, of course, is that the instructions for making the middle toe bone of a white-tailed deer are encoded in the deer’s DNA. Comparing these instructions to computer software likely does an injustice to the astounding functional complexity of the genetic code. Having taught biology for many years, the central dogma of DNA structure and function I understand. I grasp the concepts of DNA replication, transcription, and translation. I can explain and diagram the basics of what is entailed in transforming genetic code to protein should anyone be inclined to ask. But then I find myself chancing upon an object such as this, some phenomenon from the world of living things, and I find myself adrift.
So it is with the diminutive toe bone lying in my hand. It does indeed arouse strong emotions of wonder. How can a series of organic compounds – the A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s of DNA – result in such perfection of form? How do the bone forming cells of the tiny, fetal deer know how to lay down this hydroxyapatite matrix? How do these cells know how to fill this template with fibers of protein, lengths of neuron, tunnels of lifeblood? By what molecular instinct are its ends sheathed with cartilage? How did this tiny bone know that it had reached its exact proportions of length, width, and height and that it was time to stop its growth? Yes, of course I know the blueprint is encoded in the deer’s DNA. But I still marvel at the plethora of tiny details that must occur at the microscopic, cellular level of growth and development. How are length, form, and composition being transferred between cells and raw materials? How is the exact placement of osteoblast, chondrocyte, and osteoclast communicated? All these questions arise from this one tiny bone. And consider the plethora of other bones in the deer skeleton. Each has been laid down with the uniformity of structure precise to Odocoileus virginianus. All have their myriad articulations, facets, bodies, processes, and passageways for blood vessels and nerves. Sinew and hide, aorta and antler, hoof and heart are all constructed to precise specifications with an accuracy that seldom fails. The detailed instructions for all these are written by means of a modest four-letter alphabet – A (adenine), T (thymine), C (cytosine), and G (guanine); so simple to recite, so astounding to contemplate. Limitless questions, countless considerations course through my mind as I run my fingers gently over the little bone.

Even among the ancients the miraculous, enigmatic wonder of life itself was recognized. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” the Psalms proclaim. It requires only a tiny leap of reasoning to understand that this reference to the phenomenon which is the human species extends far beyond our selves. Today we better appreciate that the astoundingly intricate nature of life applies to every organism on our earth. All are “wonderfully made.” We now more fully understand that this miracle is spawned through the interplay of superbly complex biological mechanisms. Be it ant or ash, worm or warbler, millipede or me, the organic world expresses itself through genetic, cellular, and physiological contrivances which should leave us in awed reverence.

These biological processes are coded for and directed by DNA, an immortal thread that stretches back to the beginnings of life on earth. It is a self-replicating compound of extraordinary control, amazing elasticity, and astonishing potential. It is the shared strand that has been passed from generation to generation up through the branches of the biosphere’s phylogenetic tree. In this way, DNA weaves all life into the quilt we call biodiversity. Our small, blue world is such an extraordinarily special place – so beautiful, so enriched by its distinctive life forms, so unique within the cosmos.

The little phalanx now resides upon my desk. Periodically, I find myself requiring a gentle reminder that I live in a universe of immense wonder. To satisfy this want, all I need do is glance upon this elegant poem written in the language of bone.


photo credits:
     bone specimen by the author
     DNA by Richard Wheeler at Wikimedia Commons
     geologic time spiral by USGS at Wikimedia Commons
     earth rise above the moon by Goddard Space Flight Center. Ariz.     St. Univ.

21. The Cobra in the Refrigerator

Having been married to a field biologist for many years, my wife Anne has become remarkably accommodating when it comes to some of my idiosyncrasies. One of these eccentricities, as I suppose most people would describe it, has been my penchant for lugging home all manner of strange specimens inanimate, living, and deceased. As I recall, it began with my

first forays into biological research during undergraduate school. First there were the little glass vials containing the stomachs of white-footed and deer mice. Analysis of their contents needed to be made in order to determine the little rodents’ food habits. Then there were the jars of freshwater fishes needing identification for my class in vertebrate zoology. An occasional road-killed squirrel or fox demanding examination came to be expected by my patient and cooperative spouse

Often my specimens required preservation until I could get to them. Again, Anne calmly watched as sandwich bags containing short-tailed shrews, jumping mice, and prairie voles were stored in our freezer. Still, I would occasionally detect a transitory look from her that suggested my activities were straying far outside the bounds of what constituted normal human behavior. Such a look would cause me to wonder if she was harboring the same thought as the unfrozen caveman lawyer character played by the late Phil Hartman. “Your world is strange to me”, he would intone to bystanders during one of his Saturday Night Live skits. But, generally speaking, her forbearance in the face of an onslaught of strange fauna and flora has been quite remarkable. It is one of the reasons why I treasure this lady. Thus it wasn’t completely surprising, when I walked into the house after work one evening, and she said, “Hey, go look in the refrigerator and see what you’ve got.”

Our house was in the town of Kajang in peninsular Malaysia. After graduate school, I had found myself with the opportunity to join the Peace Corps-Smithsonian Institution Environmental Program. In Malaysia I worked as a vertebrate zoology lecturer in the biology department of the University of Agriculture (today’s Universiti Putra Malaysia). At that time, the university was rapidly expanding in both enrollment and physical size. Many of the biology department staff members were away in the U.S., Australia, or Great Britain pursuing advanced degrees. Peace Corps volunteers filled the void within the department until these folks returned from their graduate school experience.

The commute from the university to Kajang was a short twenty-minute drive and, having arrived home, I followed Anne’s invitation to check the refrigerator. Opening the door, I noticed a large paper grocery bag sitting there. Having retrieved it, I opened the top of the bag and peered inside. There, awaiting my inspection, were the remains of a snake; a very large snake at that. The serpent had for some reason been skinned. The head and tail lie separate from what was left of the body. A glance at the scalation, particularly the huge occipital scales on the top of the head, told me that here was a most exciting rarity – the remnants of a king cobra. Of course my first question to Anne was where in the world did you get this?

The cobra in the refrigerator was a gift from a colleague who lived near us and with whom I often shared field excursions.  Our friend had that

day gone to a Temuan aborigine village we often visited. He had arrived at the settlement shortly after the king cobra, now residing in our refrigerator, had been killed. Doug related that our Temuan comrade Dodong, and his wife Pakok, were sitting outside their home when they observed a long-tailed giant rat dart into a nearby burrow. To them the rat represented a prized source of protein. The idea of feasting upon a rat may take some readers aback. But, here in rural Indiana, most of us don’t bat an eye at a delicious plateful of fried squirrel or rabbit. In Sullivan County, eating a rodent or a lagomorph is not that big a deal.

Pakok ran to the burrow and, using a parang (machete), began to dig the rat from its hiding place. She had only dug a foot below the surface when the king cobra in question started to flow from the den. Keep in mind that this is the largest poisonous snake in the world; over eighteen feet is the record. The toxicity of king cobra venom is not the most virulent as venomous snakes go. Its toxin has an LD50 of around 1.7mg/kg. The LD50 represents the dosage lethal to half of the test subjects, usually mice, when it is administered in a laboratory setting. In comparison, the LD50 of the venom of the inland taipan, considered by many to be the most venomous snake in the world, is 0.03mg/kg. This is roughly fifty-seven times as virulent as king cobra venom.  However, it is possible for a large king cobra to deliver several hundred milligrams of venom. The volume of the venom produced more than makes up for its lesser toxicity.

These technical numbers would, of course, have been meaningless to Pakok. She did however very clearly understand their implications. As soon as the big snake showed its head, Pakok launched a barrage of blows from her parang onto the cobras’ cranium. Once satisfied that the snake was dead, she proceeded to remove its’ head. When Doug arrived, the body of the serpent was still writhing around on the ground. She had placed a rock on top of the head. Perhaps she anticipated that those needle-like fangs might still seek vengeance even though separated from their mechanism of movement. In this respect she exhibited the uncanny practical knowledge the Temuan possess concerning the animals and plants of the natural world which surrounded them. A reflexive bite from the head of a dead snake is quite possible.

Doug knew that I would like to have the specimen for the museum collections I was building at the university. He explained his reasoning and asked about procuring the snake. Dodong and Pakok responded that he might have the head and skin. They wanted the body because the Temuan also eat snakes and this one was not going to be an exception. This is how a king cobra ended up in my refrigerator.

This particular king cobra, or at least the skin thereof, measured eleven feet in length. That is about two-thirds the length of its potential maximum. Still, an eleven foot snake, particularly one with the prospective lethality of this one, is impressive. Surprisingly, the fangs of this snake were relatively short. When I measured them, only about a quarter of an inch of tooth

showed above the gum line. The fangs of cobras are permanently erect. The fangs of vipers, in contrast, lie folded along the upper jaw when not in use. Because of this structural difference, vipers tend to have fangs which are considerably longer than those of cobras and their kin. The Gaboon viper for example has fangs nearly two inches long. As a result of this difference in fang structure, vipers usually deliver a quick stabbing strike and withdraw while cobras tend to deliver either multiple bites or chewing bites in order to engage their relatively shorter fangs.

After having received the king cobra from the Temuan, I was ever hopeful that on a subsequent visit I would be able to see a live specimen of one of these snakes myself. We occasionally trekked and camped in the rainforest, most often with Dodong and his friends Oha and Panjang. Perhaps, I thought, on one of these trips luck will prevail and I will see this king of snakes. I had been somewhat captivated by the aura of the king cobra since I was a youngster. It was then that I had read herpetologist Raymond Ditmars’ accounts of the species. As reptile curator at the Bronx Zoo, Ditmars had observed a hint of intelligence in the king cobra. He recounted how one of their captives had learned to anticipate feeding time. This snake would go to the back of its cage and, using a crack between the door of its cage and the wall, peer into the service-way awaiting the arrival of the keeper with food. Such behavior certainly required a high level of awareness on the part of those managing this snake

Alas, while in Malaysia, the only king cobra I had the opportunity to closely inspect was a captive. It was a massive specimen held by a Chinese animal dealer. As I neared the snake’s wire cage, it cautiously raised its head a little and slightly flared its hood. How different this behavior was from the more common Malaysian spitting cobra. The latter typically responds to an approach with a frenzied and spectacular display of hissing, hood-spreading, and antagonistic striking. The “king” quietly stared at my face with dark eyes that suggested an intelligent analysis of the situation. The snake radiated a self-assured, bold confidence born of its high station in the hierarchy of rainforest residents.  I had the very distinct sense that, could the “king” speak, it would be saying quite bluntly, “I’ll kick your ass if you mess with me.”

The major reason that I was never fortunate enough to see a king cobra in the wild rested with the rules of bioenergetics. King cobras primarily eat other snakes (their genus name Ophiophagus means “snake eater”). By eating other snakes, king cobras find themselves at the very top of the food chain. As energy is passed along a biological food chain, the amount available at each successive link becomes, for a variety of reasons, less and less. Thus, there will always be fewer lions than wildebeest, fewer ospreys than gizzard shad, and fewer king cobras than rat snakes. They are, quite simply, comparatively rarer than other snakes.

However, not long before I left Malaysia, it did appear that I might have one more opportunity to meet a king cobra. This chance revolved around, of all people, Muhammad Ali. The great heavy-weight champion was in Kuala Lumpur preparing for a fight with his British opponent Joe Bugner. Ali was tremendously popular in Malaysia where the state religion is Islam. The boxer had a huge entourage with him and the group occupied an entire floor of the Kuala Lumpur Hilton.  His stay was marked by the accoutrements of stardom and his sorties to the training arena announced by siren-blaring police escorts.

My office phone rang one day and it was my friend Kiew who taught at the University of Malaya. Among the crowd of photographers, trainers, and hangers-on who accompanied Ali was an avid snake collector. Thus it was that Kiew had received a call from the chancellor of his university. Ali’s friend wanted a king cobra to take home with him. Kiew was ordered to obtain one for him. Kiew in turn called me inquiring as to where he could get a specimen. I relayed the location of an animal dealer Kuala Lumpur where it might be possible to purchase a king cobra. I was a bit uneasy thinking of Kiew, who was quite inexperienced in snake handling, having to deal with a twelve-foot long package of dynamite. I advised him to use extreme caution and to be sure to enlist my help if needed. I sat, fingers crossed in excited anticipation, hoping that finally I would get to work with a living king cobra. Unhappily, it was not to be. I later found that Kiew had gone to the animal dealer who had already crated the snake for him. The serpent was passed along to the new owner without Kiew having to handle the volatile animal. In retrospect, I suppose that was a good thing. Dealing with an unhappy king cobra in restricted space is not a scenario for the novice herpetologist. Then again, maybe Kiew was simply exercising a little more common sense than myself.

In the end, this incident was certainly one I could place in my catalog of interesting life-experiences. But disappointingly, and for the final time in Malaysia, I had missed an opportunity to work with what I consider the most impressive snake species in the world – the king cobra.

               (photo by Mundo Gump at Wikimedia Commons)

20. The Cobra in the Plastic Bag

When I first learned that I would be going to Malaysia as a Peace Corps-Smithsonian Institution Volunteer I was, to put it mildly, thrilled. Fortunately I was blessed by having an equally adventurous spouse and so, with seven year old daughter in tow, off we went.

The source of my excitement in contemplating our journey was two-fold I suppose. First, for reasons still not fully understood, I had been infected since childhood with an insatiable desire to travel to far, exotic places. Malaysia certainly fit the bill. It was about as distant from Sullivan, Indiana as one could travel upon the globe. Any farther from the Hoosier state and, as ancient mariners had postulated, one would be coming home again. Malaysia’s position as a British colony until the mid-twentieth century had resulted in a fascinating blend of ethnicities and cultures. This also suggested that there were sure to be cultural adventures revolving around food, customs, beliefs that would be both exciting and educational.

Naturally, as a biologist, there was the allure of the country’s rich natural history. For anyone intrigued by plants and animals, the very thought of visiting Malaysia was the stuff of dreams. This relatively small country was home to ten thousand species of flowering plants, two hundred kinds of mammals, and six hundred types of birds. Equally exciting, nearly one hundred and fifty species of snakes were endemic to this Southeast Asian nation (today over 200 species). What more could one want? So it was that, after a few weeks of language training, I found myself established in the biology department of the University of Agriculture Malaysia or the Universiti Pertanian as it was then called. As soon as possible, I began to go on birding walks, make scouting forays for frogs, lizards, and snakes and peruse the literature on Malaysian mammals. All this was necessary because I would soon begin work as a lecturer in vertebrate zoology at the university.  I needed to bring myself up to some degree of working knowledge regarding the local fauna and be quick about it.

It wasn’t long before my interest in snakes became known within and around the campus. Not only was I concerned about learning all I could regarding the local snake fauna, I also needed specimens. I found the thought of trying to teach vertebrate zoology labs without museum specimens unsatisfactory. If the students were going to learn anything practical about their fauna, then it would be highly advantageous to be able to show them what a puff-faced water snake, a tokay gecko, or a house shrew actually looked like. So it was that one of my first endeavors was to begin to build a museum collection of vertebrate specimens for teaching purposes.

I soon found that a small monetary reward could generate a slow but steady flow of specimens in my direction. During the three years I spent in Malaysia snakes, frogs, toads, turtles, ands bats found their way to me via locals living near the university. Occasionally a rare or unique specimen would be produced, a Malayan pangolin and a leopard cat for example. Although I remember many of these animals with fond aesthetic and scholarly interest, my recollection of the first Malaysian cobra I received stands out as a most unforgettable experience.

I was sitting at my office desk preparing notes when a knock came at my door. Inviting them to enter, I found it was my lab assistant and budding friend Rajoo. The lab assistants at our university were not grad students as they were in the United States. Here they were people hired specifically for that position. As a result Rajoo was well into his forties and was married with children. He always called me Mr. George because he was accustomed to the Asian manner of having the surname appear first in a moniker.  “Mr. George,” Rajoo said. “There is a fellow downstairs who has a cobra for you. It is in a bag.” I assumed he meant a cloth bag of the kind herpetologists used when bagging a snake. With excitement, I leaped from my chair and headed for the door. Suddenly,  I was accompanied by the unbidden recollection of a line from Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Although the passage referred to another snake, the saw-scaled viper, it suddenly seemed quite appropriate. Of this snake Kipling wrote, “Something flinched a little in the dust, and a tiny voice said: Be careful. I am Death.”

Rajoo directed me to the lab where waited the chap with the snake. What a surprise when I saw the captor hold out not a cloth bag but one made of sturdy but transparent plastic. Inside this plastic bag was a very, very angry cobra.

The threat display of the cobras is quite impressive under any circumstances. Being a first encounter, and given at arm’s length, the exhibition within the confines of the translucent bag was spectacular. With hood fully spread, and its body reared as high as possible within its prison, the snake struck the inside of the bag ferociously. This was accompanied by explosive hissing.  Actually, I question whether calling it a hiss is sufficient. The sound was more like the deep, explosive escape of steam from a high pressure pipe. All in all, the display was pretty damned intimidating which, of course, was its exact purpose.

I was to find, over the course of the next three years, that this particular cobra species was relatively common around the university campus. After all, it was an agriculture school initially. There were fields and crops and this meant rats. Malayan cobras are quite fond of rats as well as another favorite, toads. Generally speaking, subsequent cobras I encountered were more than willing to give ground and dart away given the chance. However if they found themselves cornered, as the present captive was, the snakes would put up a tremendous threat display. This was often accompanied by repeated strikes. These were regularly delivered with the mouth closed, simply part of the aposematic behavior as it is called. Make no mistake; the bite of one of these snakes is incredibly dangerous. Cobras are members of a group of snakes known as elapids. The elapids include not only cobras but kraits, coral snakes, and mambas. The venom of these snakes is highly neurotoxic. Symptoms of neurotoxic snake bite include disturbing manifestations of neural paralysis such as drooping of the eyelids, drooling, numbness, tingling of the skin, and euphoria. These may escalate into truly life-threatening signs such as difficulty in breathing, shock, and respiratory failure. The effect of neurotoxins on the respiratory system has been likened to having another person sit on one’s chest while trying to breathe. Perhaps you will now understand why I looked forward to getting the captive cobra from the bag with some trepidation.

Having given the bearer of the cobra his due, I now contemplated my next move. Oh yes, I had one more concern to consider. This particular cobra species had an additional trick tucked away in its arsenal; it could spit venom. Once considered a subspecies of Indian cobra, the specimen that resided in the bag before me is now considered a separate species and is known as the Equatorial spitting cobra. The fangs of spitting cobras are a bit different in structure than those of typical venomous snakes. The openings from the hollow lumen of the fangs are situated on the front of the distal end of these teeth rather than more rearward. Thus, contraction of the muscles surrounding the venom glands directs the venomous spray forward toward an aggressor. This venom, should it enter the eyes, causes severe pain and if not flushed away can damage the corneas. It is used as a defensive measure by spitting cobras but experiment has shown that lab mice may absorb venom placed into their eyes with fatal results. I wore glasses and this offered substantial protection.

It seemed prudent that the first move should be to get the snake outside. I didn’t relish the idea of having a cobra loose in the confines of the lab; too many places in which to dart into hiding, too many innocent bystanders. So, making sure I kept my hand well above the knot the snake wrangler had tied in the bag, I proceeded out onto the lawn adjacent to the building. Laying the bag upon the ground, I very carefully undid the knot which made the snake captive. The penitentiary now rested open upon the grass. Not surprisingly the cobra did not suddenly burst from its’ jail. Instead, sensing a modicum of security inside, it chose to lie there inertly. A touch of the tail with my snake stick altered its plan and the snake poured from the bag with the speed and grace of a flowing rivulet of liquid. In one elegant, synchronous move the snake streamed into the classic, upright, hood-flaring pose of the cobra. Like a pillar of carved ebony wood the serpent stood motionless, eyes fixed intently upon me, waiting to see what the next move in our confrontation might be. For my part, the next priority was – don’t get bitten!

As noted, cobras regularly strike with their mouths closed simply as a threat. We also know that venomous snakes may bite but not inject venom. This is called a dry bite. Nevertheless, studies of cobras in Malaysia had revealed another extremely nasty repercussion of their bites, a physiological effect known as tissue necrosis. So, in addition to its highly neurotoxic component, Equatorial spitting cobra venom also contains enzymes which destroy tissues. Skin, connective tissue, and underlying muscle my actually be digested by the venom and subsequently slough away. This leaves a huge ulcerated wound which either scars horribly or requires skin grafting. Extreme cases of such hemotoxic envenomation have even been known to require amputations. You will now apprehend why I now proceeded with extreme caution.

After some photographs, it was time to get the serpent into a cloth bag for transfer into permanent housing. Using the hooked end of my snake stick, I forced the cobra into a flattened position on the grass. Sliding the hook forward, I immobilized its head with downward pressure applied across the parietal scales. With studious intent, I carefully placed my index finger on top of the head, thumb and middle finger just behind the skull and the cobra was secured. Supporting its body with my other hand, the specimen was carefully deposited into a cloth snake bag. This in itself was a critical step. If not cautious, or by using a snake bag too small for its occupant, one can be quickly confronted by a snake bent on escape which has used its tail, and its length, to spring right back out of the bag. With the container secured, I then moved the snake upstairs to my office where it was confined in a secure terrarium.

Here, in its new home, the cobra soon reverted back to its irritable, hot tempered behavior. Stepping up to the terrarium provoked a most belligerent threat display. Rearing the front portion of the body a foot or so above the floor of its container, the snake repeated its explosive hisses and feinted strikes. Suddenly, as if realizing that this wasn’t scaring me away, the cobra silently opened its mouth. Quickly, like jets from a pair of miniature squirt guns, two streams of venom shot against the terrarium’s glass. Cobras are well able to fixate on the face of an aggressor and aim the venom toward the eyes. Such was the case here and I welcomed the intervening glass. This type of behavior continued for the first couple of days of captivity. Any approach to the terrarium elicited a violent response. In the interim periods, when I worked at my desk, I would occasionally be seized by that odd feeling of being watched which we sometimes experience. Glancing over my shoulder at the terrarium, I would see the cobra silent, immobile but erect as a candle stick watching my movements. Even from across the room, motions of my hands or body would send the snake into an instant defensive posture and there it would stand unwavering, its gaze fixed upon me.

Somewhat surprisingly, this being my first experience working with the species, the snake’s extreme irascibility subsided within a few days. Now the cobra spent its time hiding beneath the substrate in its terrarium. A toad placed in with the snake would be quite absent the following morning, but of the snake itself nothing was seen. Apparently this type of reaction to captivity is common. An initial period of violent aggressive behavior is followed by a lapse into a rather calm indifference on the part of the cobra. I was told that the Indian snake charmers who use cobras in their act must often replace them after a period of time. Like the cobra I encountered, they simply lose interest in performing and refuse to rise from the charmer’s basket.

Given “my” cobra’s retreat into a state of impassiveness, some might conclude that the episode of the cobra in the plastic bag ended with anticlimactic dullness. I couldn’t disagree more.  There are few other animals capable of eliciting the fright and racing pulse generated by a first, close encounter with an irritable, intimidating cobra. So it is that my earliest, intimate run-in with a short-tempered, wild cobra was an incident that has forever lodged itself in my memory. It was an adrenalin producing rendezvous with one of the natural world’s most dangerous animals.

Naturally, I find myself reminiscing about this experience quite often. The recollection prompts me to ruminate, with great warmth, upon a world wonderfully alien to the American midland of my origins. Tropical Malaysia was a land of unending revelation and beauty. It was a natural realm which afforded me glimpses into the lives of creatures that were both novel and exotic. Here, through encounters with the natural world that were not just unusual but were uniquely unforgettable, I found my life enriched.