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 till

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 considerable shock to see a fish clambering up in a tree.

 Being frightfully prone to daydreaming I would occasionally, while watching these odd fish, be struck by the strange sensation of viewing them from the cockpit of my time capsule. Instead of the 20th Century, I found myself in the late Devonian Period some 400 million years past. Upon the land behind me roamed no serpents, no lizards. There was no need to furtively glance over the shoulder, alert for an approaching Velociraptor. Equally absent were any mammalian predators large, small, or in-between. No birds sang from the trees or flashed a colorful wing. During this geologic period, the fossil record clearly shows that 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.



19. The Rattlesnake That Wasn’t: Mimicry in Nature

It was along a back road in rural Oklahoma that I received the greatest fright ever bestowed upon me by a snake. Strange to say having dealt with such lethal serpents as rattlesnakes, water moccasins, cobras, and kraits, but this fellow (or so I call it) was just an ordinary “ole” colubrid.

You may first rightly ask, what is a colubrid? A colubrid is simply a member of a certain taxonomic family (Colubridae) of snakes. About eighty percent of all the snake species in the world are colubrids. These are typically the common, non-venomous (with certain potentially deadly exceptions) snakes of the world. And yes, I know that the question of which snakes are venomous is a whole other topic for discussion. In our area of southwestern Indiana, typical colubrids would include the prairie kingsnake, garter snake, black rat snake, and northern water snake. These are snakes that simply don’t deserve the fear many people experience should they come upon one of them.

My tale begins along a remote, gravel backroad in Oklahoma. A summer road trip embarked upon with my graduate school advisor John Whitaker was the motive. Our destination was Texas A&M University in College Station. This was the site of the annual convention of the American Society of Mammalogists. It was a journey I had anticipated with much excitement as the gathering was sure to draw the top mammal scientists in the country. At that stage of my life, I couldn’t get enough of the research regarding such esoteric topics as the food habits of the short-tailed shrew, the territorial behavior of chipmunks, or the ecological relationships of woodland mice.

The trip down there was a jaunt of around nine hundred miles. We traveled in one of the venerable VW minibuses belonging to Indiana State University’s life science department.  Dr. Whitaker was not about to let all of the intervening territory between Indiana and Texas pass by without sampling its small mammal fauna. No barrier was too great to stop his quest for specimens for our collections. I once saw him dig a pocket gopher from its burrow with his bare hands. I’m not kidding. It was like watching the speed and power of the bionic man, Steve Austin, in the old TV series The Six Million Dollar Man. I also have a distinctly imprinted memory of him sprinting through the Texas scrub like an Olympian in pursuit of a fleeing nine-banded armadillo. The armadillo lost.

John was also the most intensely hard-working, diligent scientist with whom I’ve had the pleasure of associating. As a student, and as an adult, I’ve found myself to be alarmingly prone to bouts of daydreaming and flights of fantasy. Thus if one was to surreptitiously observe me, I might be found  idly sitting at my desk staring, with discouraging regularity,  off into space. In contrast, throughout the years I worked with Dr. Whitaker, I was amazed to never find him in a similar state of reverie. I know he must have done so. The devotion of time to contemplating, hypothesizing, or just plain thinking about things are necessary commitments for a scientist. Yet, I never walked into his office to find him idle. On every occasion, throughout the years, he would be busily examining mites beneath his microscope, engaged in typing the text of one of his hundreds of research papers, or pouring over the rough draft of a research project submitted by one of his graduate students. He simply had the most strenuous work ethic I’ve ever seen. And so, there were small mammals to be collected on the way to Texas.

Our routine was to drive an allotted number of hours and check into a motel. We would then cruise into the surrounding countryside to look for a place to set traps. John is a specialist in the arcane world of small mammals, shrews and mice. He is also one of the world’s leading experts on the food habits and parasites of bats. However the latter mammals require more specialized collecting equipment so, on this trip, it was mice and shrews. The animals we sought would be used to enrich the storehouse of mammal specimens in the vertebrate collections at Indiana State. The device we used for capture was the simple mouse trap baited with peanut butter. I suppose the biggest difference in our collecting with mouse traps and that which you might pursue in your house was a matter of numbers. Whereas you might be satisfied with two or three traps strategically placed along a baseboard or in a cabinet, John was a bit more industrious. He had brought along several hundred mouse traps and these we dutifully set each evening after finding lodging. Once the traps had been set, we would venture back to town for dinner. Having eaten, we would go back to the trap line, collect any specimens taken, and pick up our traps.

Back at the motel we would then check the mice and shrews for parasites, record standard measurements of the specimens, and then prepare study skins of the various specimens. This was done by removing the skin and fixing it over a cotton form we constructed which approximated the size and shape of the original animal. Left to dry, these museum specimens would then be ready for classroom or research use. Such specimens, properly protected from insect pests, will last for many decades. I suppose it must sound quite strange, to a non-scientist, to hear of two grown men engaged in such an abstruse pursuit.  However, I recall a pleasant blend of the camaraderie associated with field work and a sense of creative accomplishment in producing an artistically done museum specimen. I will freely admit, finding the world of shrews and mice fascinating to the point of infatuation is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, I have no doubt that it is through the varied interests and pursuits by scientists, of even the most obscure aspects of the natural world, that we eventually come to better understand the intricate workings of the natural world.

And so it was that, on this particular evening, I found myself walking along a road side ditch, in central Oklahoma, engaged in the setting of the three hundred or so mouse traps we had previously baited with peanut butter. John was walking ahead of me, removing mouse traps from a bag, and dropping one of them every foot or so. Walking as I was in the ditch, it was very handy for me to reach down and pick up a trap lying on the berm above the ditch. I had managed to set a dozen or so traps when I reached down into the grass to retrieve the next one. Suddenly, I was greeted by the one sound in nature that is guaranteed to instantly send one’s heart into overdrive. From the grass directly at my face came the very distinct sound of an exceedingly unhappy rattlesnake.

My heart leaped into my throat and began to gallop at a pace which was palpable. I couldn’t see the snake lurking in the grass before me, but it couldn’t have been more than an arm’s length away. The sound was too close, too loud, and too distinct to be otherwise. My mind raced through the possible reactions I should take. Running didn’t seem like a good option; I thought a sudden movement might provoke a strike. Another possibility was mistaking the exact location of the snake and blundering into during a precipitous flight. It seemed the best course of action was to remain still, try to visually locate the snake, and hope that it wasn’t feeling overly aggressive today. All the while, I mentally ran through a catalog of the possible rattlesnake species that I might be confronting. Western diamondback and prairie rattler seemed the two prospects.

While all these thoughts were rapidly presenting themselves, the serpent began to reveal itself. The tuft of grass in which it had hidden began to slowly rise, as though being inflated by some invisible pumping mechanism. Now I could begin to make out the coils of a very large snake (too big for a prairie rattlesnake I thought) emerging from the grass. A background color of brownish-yellow was revealed and upon this was imprinted a series of very dark brown dorsal blotches. They were not really diamond-shaped, more rectangular, and my fear began to subside somewhat.  But the rattling sound continued unabated; I was still puzzled. At last the serpent’s head came into view, perched on the end of a wicked looking, rattlesnake-like “ S-loop” at the front of the body. Finally the mystery, at least to the snake’s identity, was revealed. Running from the eye to the angle of the jaw was a quite distinct dark band bordered by a yellowish band above it. The snake’s head was also familiar to me. I experienced an instance of what biologists often refer to as “gestalt”. This is the presence of a mental image, often difficult to describe to a neophyte, which allows one to recognize a given type of organism.  There was a certain conformity of head shape and scale pattern which clearly said bullsnake. I wasn’t in a life-threatening situation after all – whew!

The bullsnake lying before was nevertheless an impressive animal. Not many snakes in the United States are larger than a mature bullsnake. The record length for this species is nearly eight and a half feet. Coupled with their size is a propensity to act aggressively when disturbed.  I once narrowly avoided being bitten in the face by a grumpy bullsnake that launched a strike from what seemed to be an impossibly distant reach. But the rattling sound being produced by the snake here in my presence continued to intrigue me. It was so nearly identical to the sound of a large

rattlesnake that I could hardly believe it was issuing forth from this individual. It is extremely common for snakes of many species to vibrate their tail when agitated. If this is done against dry leaves or grasses, the sound can be remarkably similar to that of a rattler. However, my bullsnake was not doing that. As I watched it more intently, I noticed that this rattler-like sound seemed to coincide with a very noticeable exhalation of air. Of course many snakes hiss as part of their aposematic display. But this was no hiss; it was a rattlesnake rattle. I continued, with now normal heart rate, down the trap line still pondering how the snake was making this sound.

Later, back in Terre Haute, I delved into the bullsnake’s secret. When snakes hiss they forcefully expel air from their glottis. The glottis is basically the opening into their trachea or windpipe if you will. We have one too of course. Ours lies in the back of our throat. In snakes, the glottis is extended forward to open as a tube on the floor of the mouth just behind the lower, front teeth. This adaptation allows them to breathe while their mouth is stuffed full of a large prey item during the swallowing process (which may take many minutes). I found that, in bullsnakes, there is a flap of soft tissue at the end of the glottis which vibrates back and forth as they expel air from the lung. This flapping imitates the sound of a rattlesnake rattle to an amazing degree. It is easy to see how the evolution of such structure and behavior in the bullsnake would be adaptive. Adaptive is a fancy way biologists have of saying that an evolved characteristic is beneficial to an organism.  Predators or grazers which have learned by experience to avoid the dangerous rattlesnake species would certainly be put off by the excellent mimicry of the bullsnake.

Thus it was, once again, that a chance encounter with a denizen of the wild led me down an unexpected yet rewarding learning path. The bullsnake who would be a rattler became not just another coincidental animal meeting, but a guide who opened the door to yet another secret niche lying within the wondrously biodiverse world in which we all live.

Additional Notes Regarding Mimicry:

Mimicry takes many forms within the animal kingdom. The harmless scarlet kingsnake has a color pattern which looks much like that of the dangerously venomous coral snake. Hover flies are easily mistaken for bees by novice observers. Mimicry in which a harmless or edible species resembles a harmful or distasteful one is called Batesian mimicry. The name honors  the nineteenth century naturalist Walter Henry Bates. In other cases, such as heliconid butterflies, several bad tasting (to birds) species resemble one another so all achieve a collective protection. This is an example of Muellerian mimicry. Sometimes mimicry can be achieved through structure or color. Technically, this might be better categorized as having cryptic structure or color. For example, certain lepidopteran caterpillars resemble the droppings of birds. Others, should the branch upon which they are climbing be jostled, will suddenly stiffen and rear up at an angle. Thus posed, they look remarkably like the petiole from which a leaf has broken. There are butterflies in the tropics which resemble dead leaves, complete with what appear to be holes formed by the action of fungi. Katydids often bear extraordinary resemblance to living leaves. Walking stick insects look, of course, like the twigs upon which they clamber about. The natural world is replete with examples of mimicry, protective resemblance, camouflaging coloration, and behavioral copycats.

Photos by the author.



18. The Subtle Serpent

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.                                                                                                                 Genesis 3: 1

It was a mixed band of squirrel monkeys and saddle-back tamarins that had attracted my attention. Up ahead I could see their swift movements among the branches of a towering Inga tree. The calls of these little primates could easily be mistaken for the vocalizations of birds. In fact, it was their calling that had originally drawn my attention to the tree they were exploring. This tree was located only a few hundred yards from the majestic Amazon River in northeastern Peru. Here the Neotropical rainforest presented a most splendid exhibit of biodiversity. I was walking within a forest which held ten percent of the world’s plant species. Dispersed on and beneath the impressive community of forest giants – kapok, fig, pacay, Brazil nut – lived a multitudinous assemblage of fungi, insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, and mammals.  Stepping along the trail toward the little primates, I squeezed through a rich undergrowth of ginger, irapay and pona palm, philodendron, melastoma, and maranta. Although the comparison is shopworn, it really was akin to walking within a crowded greenhouse. In the background I heard the periodic calls of screaming piha’s. The piercing, exotic whistles of these rather nondescript, grayish brown birds cried out to me – “rainforest, this is tropical rainforest”.  (You can hear one at the following link.)


 I listened as a continuous series of high-pitched squeaks, trills, and staccato screeches produced by the busy monkeys issued from the trees just ahead of me. Lifting my binoculars to my eyes, I once again scanned ahead and saw that the roving assemblage was much closer now. I could clearly make out individual animals within the primate band. If I could only get a little nearer I would really be able to observe their behavior. Lowering my binoculars, I began to move closer to the little animals. With one foot thus poised in mid-stride, there suddenly came to me a second thought. The how or why of this sudden, unbidden neuronal signal has puzzled me for many years. Whatever the source, there abruptly arose in my mind a delicate warning. Be careful it said. Watch where you step it whispered. Heeding this cautioning counsel without question, I glanced down at the trail. Lying there, directly in the path of my next step, was a snake. My heart made a sudden lunge into a higher gear. This was not just any snake. Resting there at my feet, its head slightly raised from the ground in alertness was a fer-de-lance, considered by many to be the most dangerously venomous snake in the Neotropics.

So quietly it rested there. So delicately it blended with the brownish soil and dead leaves. So noiselessly had it appeared at my feet. So horrible could be the effects of its bite. The surrounding forest, and its inhabitants, seemed to have momentarily disappeared. The sounds of birds and monkeys hung suspended in the air. The universe abruptly consisted of only two beings – the snake and myself. I froze in silent contemplation of what might have been had I allowed my footfall.

“Iron of the lance” so the snake might be called in the English translation. As I gazed down at the serpent, the name seemed eminently appropriate. The lance-shaped head, so beautifully proportioned, was well delineated from the body by a slender neck.  The snake gazed upward at me, seemingly as unsure of the next move as I was. This specimen was only three feet or so in length, roughly half its potential adult size. Nevertheless, I was confident that the toxicity of this snake’s venom would be every bit as potent as an adult’s. The venom of pit-vipers such as this one is a complex brew of organic chemicals. I once heard snake venom described as acting like a physiological hand grenade when introduced into another organism. This description seems perfectly accurate as envenomation initiates a cascade of destructive consequences. Considerable pain and swelling are common initial symptoms of viper bite. But, there may be much worse to come. Contained within their modified saliva are enzymes such as phospholipase which digests cell membranes.  Such lysins can destroy massive areas of soft tissue – skin and muscle for example. Should you be curious as to the human results of such tissue devastation, do a Google image search for fer-de-lance bite. But be forewarned; the images you’ll find are not for those who quail at the sight of horrific injury. 

 Other venom components work to cause internal physiological damage. Hemolysins attack red blood cells, rupturing their membranes and destroying their ability to carry oxygen. Blood vessel walls are assaulted causing them to leak. As a result, bite victims may exhibit hematuria (blood in their urine) or hematochezia (blood discharged per anum). Blood loss may cause a precipitous drop in blood pressure with the classic symptoms of shock, rapid pulse and respiration rates ensuing. Venoms often contain cardiotoxins which attack heart muscle cells leading to arrhythmias or cardiac collapse. As you will clearly see, venom’s full scale assault on body structure and function make envenomation by a viper an experience to be diligently avoided.

I continued to regard the fer-de-lance with caution and respect. It remained in the locomotor posture in which I had first seen it and showed no coiling or other signs of aggression. The snake, like nearly all I have encountered over the years, indicated a strong willingness to leave alone and be left alone. But, I also knew that I had been fortunate. This species, contrary to its present behavior, is often a cranky fellow who doesn’t always display such gentlemanly conduct. Leaving it lying in the trail didn’t seem like such a good idea. This was a pathway frequently used by tourists and their guides. Glancing about, I found a stout but slim tree branch a few feet in length. I gently eased the limb under the snake. A quickening of the snake’s tongue-flicking behavior was the only reaction given as I gradually raised the creature from the trail. The snake easily balanced itself on the branch as I carried it several feet from the path and lowered it back onto the ground. I took a few photographs and then, relieved at the uneventful conclusion to such a close encounter with an exceedingly dangerous animal, I returned to my search for monkeys.

 Strangely enough, I had not seen the last of this snake. Two days later I ventured down this same trail along with a group of rainforest workshop participants and their guide. I distinctly recalled the spot where I had previously encountered the viper. Even though it isn’t uncommon for vipers to lie in wait for prey for rather extended periods of time, I was mildly surprised to see that it was still lying in the exact spot in which I had placed it. The serpent was again on its best behavior and allowed our group to crowd around (relatively speaking) to take photos and share the excitement of seeing what is normally a somewhat elusive animal.

But still, my mind reverted to my initial encounter and that mysterious sixth sense that had warned me to look down. I have heard of others who have had a similar experience. Tropical biologist Adrian Forsyth recounted a comparable happenstance in Costa Rica; this also involved a pit-viper. Walking along a forest path, Forsyth described halting, “in midstep just as a mottled brown missile tipped with a gaping mouth launched itself at my toes.” He recalled reacting in an instinctive manner to draw his foot out of the way before he even mentally considered the action. Renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson has something to say on this subject as well. Wilson is recognized as the “father of sociobiology”. This discipline is considered controversial by some because it implies an evolutionary origin for many aspects of human social behavior. In other words, there are some things we do that are derived as a result of the adaptive value they provided our far-distant ancestors. Wilson argues that such social actions are programmed into our genetic makeup. A positive example might be the human propensity to form maternal bonds between mother and child. A negative illustration would be the human tendency toward tribalism and thus distrust of those who differ from us in ethnicity or religion. But there may be other adaptive behaviors that lurk deeper in our psyche.

My run in with the fer-de-lance, and its similarity to the snake experiences described by others, makes me think Wilson is likely correct. What he might describe as the “startle response” seems to be deeply ingrained in the human mind. This does indeed suggest an underlying genetic , thus inherited, component for our ability to sense imminent danger. To quote Dr. Wilson: “The brain appears to have kept its old capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.” Or, in my case, the not yet vanished forests of the world.*

 *There is an interesting footnote to this story. Not long after I had written this essay a friend referred me to a piece of research recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Anthropologist Lynne Isbell had a snake experience in Africa similar to mine. This prompted her to team up with researchers in Japan studying the reaction to snakes by monkeys that had never seen serpents. These studies showed that the visual system of the brain of humans, apes, and monkeys contain neurons that are particularly sensitive to snake images. This area of the brain is called the pulvinar. It now appears that the human brain does indeed have the innate ability to recognize the presence of a serpent well before we are consciously aware of its company.
 Photo Credits:

squirrel monkey          Luc Valour at commons.wikimedia.org
saddle-back tamarin      Giovannie Mari at commons.wikimedia.org
fer de lance             Bernard DuPont at commons.wikimedia.org




17. A Meditation Upon Beauty Within the Natural World

(also available as a podcast at georgesly.podbean.com)

It just occurs to me that … God started his show a good many million years before he had any men for audience—a sad waste of both actors and music—and in answer to both people of faith and of science, . . .  it is just barely possible that God himself likes to hear birds sing and see flowers grow.

Aldo Leopold

As I grow older and contemplate the many gifts the universe has bestowed upon me, courtesy of the natural world, I find myself more and more meditative.  Doubtless this is a common evolution of philosophy among the human kind. During our adolescence and formative years, thoughts of infirmities to come, our own mortality lie mercifully distant. As we age and are dealt the many blows that are granted us simply by living, our thoughts turn ever more reflective. The wondrous gift of life, the question of purpose, and rumination upon our own life’s trajectory seem to increasingly occupy our mind. Much of my thought over the years has been apportioned to the natural world. Recently the contemplation of the beauty found in nature has been upon my mind more often. Long an admirer of the renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, his flirtations with the mystical have injected themselves into these musings as well. Why is the earth’s biodiversity so exaggeratedly filled with examples of aesthetic loveliness? Why does this beauty seem to abundantly surpass any practical need?

Why Are Flowers So Extravagantly Beautiful

                The flowering plants are a good place to start. Flowers are simply reproductive organs. Their male parts produce pollen. Their female parts produce eggs. Insuring that these two cells meet is of course critical. One result of this need is that flowering plants have co-evolved over the millennia with the animals which transfer their pollen. We can almost bet that, should a flower use an animal as an agent of pollination, it will have evolved showy petals to attract them. Such flowers may double their enticement by being quite fragrant as well. Admittedly, if the flower happens to be pollinated by flies, this fragrance may be that of decay. But the point is that flowers often flamboyantly advertise their presence if pollinated by animals. Daytime pollinators, such as butterflies and birds are highly attuned to red. Thus it is no surprise that we see so many flowers of this color. In contrast flowers which are pollinated by bats and moths are typically an unexciting white, the color that shows up best at night. But still I wonder; do flowers have to be so astonishingly showy? Wouldn’t a simple, flat disk of a given color work just fine?

Apparently it does not. Create your own list of top ten most beautiful flowers. You may, like me, find yourself initially stymied. Where to begin? The choices seem limitless. Some of my favorites occur in the tropics and include passion flowers, the heliconias, torch ginger, and the myriad species of orchids. Here at home, I am captivated by the loveliness of spring beauty and Dutchman’s breeches, catalpa and Virginia bluebell, Silphium and blazing star. They all seem to go beyond the bounds of practicality. The rich diversity of colors, shadings, crenellations, and flamboyancy seem to defy all reason.



There is Beauty Within the Animal Kingdom As Well

Even a cursory reflection upon the vast array of animals whose beauty has caught my attention over the years yields a similar cornucopia of examples. The clouded leopard for instance; surely a tawny coat and a few spots would serve as sufficient camouflage within the middle layers of the rainforest. But no, this extraordinary cat is covered in a myriad of blotches of multitudinous shades from white to gray, fawn to black, sand to sepia. Arranged in a bedazzling array of smudges, spots, ovals, oblongs, and squares their coat renders them nearly invisible within their tropical forest home. But I can’t help but perceive that the pattern of their coat goes well beyond the bounds of a super-efficient camouflage. I cannot look at a clouded leopard and not find myself stunned by its absolutely exquisite beauty. I invariably feel a visceral emotion that is totally divorced from my understanding of the biological mechanisms which bring about this beauty. I dare say the feeling is more akin to the sensation I receive when contemplating an impressionist painting or listening to the opening strains of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major.

The Loveliness of Birds

If we venture to look within the avian world, the examples of beauty transpiring into the irrationally gorgeous are everywhere. Even the non-biologist will likely seize upon the male peafowl as just such an animal. I am taxed to know where to begin when contemplating the beauty of birds. For sheer elegance of form what could surpass the stealthily wading great egret or the striding black-necked stilt? What figures in motion are more graceful than the dynamic soaring of a wandering albatross or the lazy circling of a red-tailed hawk riding upon its invisible donut of air? Should we want to rank the beauty of birds based upon their color, we might find that this too is not so simple. The colors and forms exhibited among the Aves seem nearly infinite. How could I hope to choose a winner from among the likes of Tanzania’s lilac-breasted roller, Costa Rica’s resplendent quetzal, our American wood duck, Malaysia’s Argus pheasant, or Peru’s masked trogon? Though I understand the adaptive nature of beak, wing and leg, I still cannot fully fathom why I am compelled to stare at such birds in dumbstruck reverence.

Cold-blooded Finery

Most folks would perhaps find it more difficult than I to discern remarkable beauty among the cold-blooded clans that populate our earth. But here too I see this wondrous tendency for nature to seemingly overdo it when it comes to adorning the creatures of our world.  Consider the Gaboon viper. It is so venomous, so frightening in its deadly potential. Yet, I cannot sidestep the fact that it is an animal of great esthetic beauty. Lying quietly upon a bed of leaves, this serpent becomes virtually invisible. The rich mixture of browns, blacks, fawns, yellows, creams, and whites are arranged in an intricate pattern of blotches, rectangles, and leafy shapes that make it astonishingly difficult to distinguish. Looking upon one of these snakes, I must convince myself that an artist of supreme skill has not surreptitiously sneaked into the reptile house by night and completed a marvelous job of body painting

The fresh and saltwater fishes are certainly not to be outdone. I find myself as adrift as I am with the birds when it comes to picking a winner in their most beautiful contest.  Rainbow trout, rainbow darter, clown triggerfish, dolphinfish, Achilles tang, lion fish, angel fish, and Moorish idol. How could I choose from this kaleidoscopic of blues, greens, yellows, oranges, reds, and golds? Scientifically, rationally we know that the color patterns of these fishes may serve to camouflage, to distinguish sexes, to identify a species. But do their colors really have to be so varied, their forms so diverse, their hues so subtle, and their shades so delicate? Something tells me they do not.


Whence Comes Beauty, Complexity, and Diversity

Such organisms have led me to believe that there may be more to the astounding beauty of our planet’s biodiversity than I once imagined. I am still highly confident in the ability of science to elucidate the mechanisms by which species arise, to explain our own origins, to illuminate the temporal history of the cosmos. No problem there. But my ruminations upon the often profound beauty of earth’s organisms intuit something lying much deeper and it is this. The universe is permeated by a creative force that has, over time, generated ever-increasing complexity and diversity. The excessive loveliness found among earth’s creatures suggests that we need to recognize another procreative tendency. This prodigious, inscrutable creative force is also inclined to generate extreme beauty. Surely the number of people who have communed with the natural world, seen its inordinate beauty and not sensed this Creative Energy, this Great Mystery must be small indeed.

In an essay entitled Guacamaja, Aldo Leopold speaks of animponderable essence” which is associated with the material things of an ecosystem.  It is this quintessence which gives character, beauty, and aura to a place. In his example, the autumnal north woods is: [land + red maple + grouse].   “. . . subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” The essence responsible for the unquantifiable quality of the north woods Leopold called the noumenon of material things. It stands in opposition to a phenomenon, something that is concrete and subject to empirical study. Could it be that complexity, diversity, and beauty are reflections of the noumenon that generates the sense of awe we often experience in the natural world? Is it this noumenon, this unquantifiable presence that compel s us to experience with an emotion akin to religious awe a soaring flock of cranes, a flowering prairie, the north woods?

Was Leopold a Prophet for Our Time?

Aldo Leopold was a scholar of great breadth. His mind plumbed the depths of the discipline we now call ecology as well as those of wildlife management, conservation and yes, religious philosophy. Leopold’s classic, A Sand County Almanac makes frequent use of scriptural content and metaphor. Gavin Van Horn, writing in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, suggests “ . . . Leopold’s work continues to endure . . .  because he subtly traversed the realm of metaphysics in his writing, creating a challenging dialogue between the sciences and humanities.” An essay entitled Goose Music, written by Leopold in the early 1920’s, is a good illustration of Van Horn’s view. Within that essay lies this passage. “I heard of a boy once who was brought up an atheist. He changed his mind when he saw that there were a hundred-odd species of warblers, each bedecked like to the rainbow.  .  .   No fortuitous concourse of elements working blindly through any number of millions of years could account for why warblers are so beautiful. No mechanistic theory . . . has ever quite answered for the colors of the cerulean warbler, or the vespers of the wood thrush, or the swansong, or goose music”. Leopold ended his ruminations upon the boy who came to believe with these words. “There are yet many boys to be born who, like Isaiah, may see, and know and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this.”

What he meant by “the Lord’ is, I would surmise, open to as many interpretations as there are systems of belief (or non-belief). Throughout history we humans have tried to personalize the mysterious Creative Power – this Lord – which underlies the extravagant complexity, diversity, and beauty of the cosmos. We have given names: Allah, Brahma, Tuhan, Jehovah, Krishna, Wakan Tanka, Ngai, the Tao, and God. Our naming and anthropomorphic visualizations are attempts to grasp what we instinctively feel but cannot fully understand due to the powerfully enigmatic character of this Creative Force. Mythologist Joseph Campbell defined God as, “a personification of that world-creative energy and mystery which is beyond thinking and beyond naming.” I’m afraid that, at this point, I can come no closer to true understanding.  Given the miracle that is life on earth, perhaps this is enough.

Mr. Van Horn’s suggestion that Leopold navigated the realm of the numinous is intriguing. There is indeed the fragrance of metaphysics, the delicate scent of the mystic in many of Leopold’s essays. We should recall that his land ethic thinking is recognized as one of Leopold’s most enduring contributions to conservation philosophy.  Could it be that his understanding of the significance, as well as the source, of the loveliness found within the natural world was just as deeply insightful? If so, perhaps in contemplating the beauty of the life forms around us, we like the boy of Leopold’s story may come to “understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this.”

Photo Credits:
1. passion flower by Tomes Castelazo @ commons.wikimedia.org
2. torch ginger by George Sly
3. bird of paradise plant by Soumyoo @ commons.wikimedia.org
4. clouded leopard by SA @ commons.wikimedia.org
5. black-necked stilt by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClassen @ commons.wikimedia.org
6. lilac-breasted roller by David Meeker @ commons.wikimedia.org
7. wood duck by Judy Gallagher @ commons.wikimedia.org
8. Gaboon viper by Life As Art/Tamara @ commons.wikimedia.org
9. clown triggerfish by Derek Ramsey @ commons.wikimedia.org
10. Achilles tang by Jean @ commons.wikimedia.org
11. Moorish idol by Namal Kapadia @ commons.wikimedia.org
12. ruffed grouse by D. Faulder @ commons.wikimedia.org
13. the metaphysical mind courtesy Marabella Intl. Univ. Centre





16. The Stealth Attack: Part 4 – A Parting Look at Some Really Creepy Parasites

(This essay is also available as a podcast at georgesly.podbean.com)

After reflecting upon my run in with the Cordyceps fungus and pondering the world of mind-controlling parasites, I end such ruminations with a look at some parasites which, quite simply, give me the creeps. My mind rushes back over forty years to my undergraduate parasitology course. The class was taught by William Hopp. Doctor Hopp was a professor of the old school. He was well-versed in the whole gamut of subjects that fall under the umbrella of natural history. It seems that this discipline has fallen from favor lately as the biological sciences have rapidly progressed into more specialized realms such as cell biology, molecular biology, genomics, forensics, and physiological ecology. Once upon a time it was considered a mark of pride, and of a well- rounded science education, to have knowledge which ranged over a spectrum of fields. From geology to botany to mammalogy and back to ichthyology roamed the well-versed scientist – the natural historian. Such a person was Dr. Hopp. He even popularized his interests with a weekly show that aired Saturday mornings on one of the local TV stations. Snakes and other reptiles were often favorite guests on his show but he could converse entertainingly upon a broad range of subjects.

Dr. Hopp was a great story teller as well. One of his tales set me upon a pathway of keen interest regarding the world of parasites. This story revolved around the fact that humans are considered fair game by a variety of parasitic organisms. It seemed there was a young man who had become infected by the roundworm Ascaris. This is an unsegmented, somewhat primitive roundworm of six to eight inches in length. Ascaris is a parasite of the human small intestine although, in its larval form, it is prone to wander through several other body organs. People become infected when they accidentally ingest the worm’s eggs.  These eggs are present in the intestinal wastes of infected individuals. When I lived in Southeast Asia, certain groups of people there used human waste as a garden fertilizer. As you can imagine, this is an excellent way to ensure that Ascaris eggs get onto the vegetables that people may subsequently eat. At any rate, Dr. Hopp related how this particular infected person was given an oral dose of a vermicide. Such medications are meant to pass into the digestive tract where they kill the worm(s) which are then voided with the feces. On this occasion however, the worm medicine acted only to aggravate the parasite and caused it to attempt to migrate away from the source of its irritation. Up through the alimentary canal it came until, having reached the throat of the poor sufferer, it proceeded into the back of his nasal cavity and sought escape via the young fellow’s nostril. The image formed in my mind, and that of my classmates, of an eight inch worm emerging from a person’s nostril was disgustingly gruesome. As neophyte parasitologists, the idea that something so ghastly could actually happen to a human caused the class to groan in dismayed unison. Captivated by the often ghastly behvavior of such organisms, parasitology was henceforth a lifelong fascination for me.

Naturally, humans aren’t the only animals subject to some nightmarish parasitic infections. One of the most bizarre involves a parasitic marine isopod. You are likely familiar with isopods as the little, segmented, grayish invertebrates you encounter under an old board or paving stone in the yard. Upon being disturbed, they curl up into a tight little ball and wait for you to go away. People often call them pillbugs or roly polies. However, there is a giant member of their clan that lives in ocean waters and is parasitic on several different species of fishes. This isopod, which grows to about an inch in length, is called Cymothoa. As a juvenile, it floats freely in the water and in this way is able to enter a fish host as water is passed over the gills. Mating occurs in the fish’s gill chamber. A female then moves into the fish’s mouth cavity and latches onto the poor beast’s tongue. Cymothoa then proceeds to feed on the blood of the fish’s tongue. This causes that organ to atrophy until only a stump remains. The isopod remains attached to the muscles of this stub and begins to actually function as the fish host’s tongue. The tongue-eating isopod, how macabre is that? I’m sure glad it doesn’t have a taste for humans. It would put a whole new spin on accidentally getting a mouthful of seawater while swimming wouldn’t it?

Of course, there are many parasites that do infect humans with distressingly dreadful consequences. One of my friends once jokingly asked me why I had a propensity for “visiting countries that change their government every six months”.  In all honesty, the fear that often creeps into my mind before such trips is not based upon unstable governments but rather knowledge of tropical parasites. In these regions of the world some of the parasites of humans are simply awful. Take lymphatic filariasis for example. This is a disease caused by a tiny roundworm parasite known as a filarial worm. Transmitted from one human to the next by mosquitoes such an infection can, over time, have dramatic and horrible consequences. The problem is that these little worms, when they occur in massive numbers, can block the flow of lymphatic fluid within the body. Thus dammed, the backed-up fluid causes the surrounding tissues to undergo tremendous edematous swelling, which results in the disease we call elephantiasis. The result of this swelling can be legs larger than the diameter of the torso, pendulous breasts the size of watermelons, or a scrotum the size of a beach ball. The disfigurement is, of course, psychologically devastating and the enlargement of body regions can be so extreme as to inhibit mobility. Deformity of this sort requires repeated infection with the microfilarial worm Wuchereria over a period of years. Fortunately, although nearly fifteen percent of the human population lives in areas where elephantiasis is endemic, such extreme cases are rare. Anecdotally, during the three years I lived in Southeast Asia, I actually saw only one case of this disease and the person afflicted exhibited only a slight swelling of one leg.

And then there is Dermatobia hominis, the human botfly. I first encountered this parasite on a trip to Costa Rica several years ago, and I must admit it does horrify me. Dermatobia is a rather robust fly that measures about three-fourths of an inch in total length. To me, it somewhat resembles a blowfly like we might see buzzing around a road-killed opossum here in Indiana. If that was the habit of Dermatobia as well, we might rest easily in its presence. But, as you can guess, this botfly isn’t nearly as innocuous. Like other flies, this species goes through an elaborate reproductive metamorphosis in which it proceeds, stepwise, from egg to larva to pupa to adult. The larva, again as in other members of the fly Order, is a maggot. But, the human botfly maggot is of rather impressive countenance. The larva is nearly an inch in length, stout in girth, armed with ringlets of stiff, spiny bristles, and has a rather robust pair of jaws.

When I first saw the larvae of this fly, they were residing in the soft tissues of the necks of a group of howler monkeys. Each monkey in the troop had from two to six large ping pong ball-sized lumps on the sides of their necks. One could not help but empathize with the poor primates, helpless as they were to rid themselves of their grisly cargo. I could also not avoid the realization that this fly would just as opportunely infect me in the same manner. One might wonder how a fly as large as this could so furtively deposit its egg on either a howler monkey or a human. Surely it would be easy to hear its buzzing approach and shoo it away. But here again the amazing deviousness, in regards to completing a life cycle, which has evolved in parasites comes into play. The human botfly uses a less detectable emissary to deliver its egg payload, most often a mosquito.

Using its legs to capture a mosquito, Dermatobia glues one of its eggs onto the smaller fly’s abdomen. When the mosquito lands on its victim, monkey or human, the botfly egg is stimulated to hatch by the sudden increase in ambient temperature. Departing the mosquito, the botfly larva enters the skin of its new host. This is usually done either via the puncture made by the mosquito or by way of a hair follicle. Safely ensconced in its new home in the host’s skin, and anchored by its bristles, the larva now begins to feed and grow. The result is a large lump under the skin such as I had observed in the howler monkeys. There is an opening in the skin pustule housing the bot larva; projecting into this aperture is a pair of spiracles used for breathing. A person thus infected will occasionally feel a sharp, stabbing pain as the larva shifts its position as it feeds. To the human victim, who has brought this little souvenir of the neotropics home with them, the reaction trends to both panic and revulsion.

If one can mentally cope with the reality of having such a shocking parasite embedded in one’s skin, getting rid of it is somewhat anticlimactic. A key is depriving the larva of oxygen. Thus a colleague of mine, who developed a Dermatobia myiasis in his forearm, slapped a piece of beefsteak over the wound for a couple of days. With the spiracles blocked, and another piece of flesh to move into, the larva obligingly left his arm and crawled into the slab of beef. Others have tried putting nail polish or petroleum jelly over the opening serving the larva’s spiracles which resulted in the maggot creeping up out of their skin. If it should happen that you bring a Dermatobia home with you to the U.S., a trip to the ER would be in order. Here, with the injection of some lidocaine and an incision, the larva can easily be removed. This is assuming, of course, that the physician is somewhat familiar with tropical diseases and recognizes what is going on; this is not always a given.

I suppose if one is exceedingly patient and curious there is another course of action. One could let the larva run its pupal course of development which takes several weeks. Under natural conditions, the larva eventually crawls out of the skin, and falls to the ground. A pupa then develops and, two or three weeks later, the adult fly emerges from the soil. But alternatively one could, as an exceedingly inquisitive (and eccentric) biologist once did, carry on your person a small collecting jar. Sensing the movement of the fly larva, as it prepares to migrate from the subcutaneous tissue, one could ready the jar. By placing this jar in proper position, one could then collect the emerging larva. With your prize preserved in some isopropyl alcohol, you would be guaranteed to possess a cocktail party conversation starter of rare incident.

In spite of my flippancy, most human parasites are of course no laughing matter. The list of organisms which utilize humans as a food source, externally or internally, is a lengthy one. Here in rural Indiana, everyone is familiar with the routine of checking for ticks after a mushroom hunt or a berry picking excursion. We warn our kids not to lie about in the late summer grass lest they suffer consequences in the form of the maddening itch of chiggers. In the United States the efficient disposal of human wastes, along with meat inspection, make a case of beef or pork tapeworm, Ascaris infection, or hookworm relatively rare. In other parts of the world this is not the case. When I lived in Southeast Asia in the 1970’s, about seventy-five percent of the students in the small college where I taught had worm infections. Another time, talking over dinner with a rural clinic doctor in Peru, I asked what percent of the local population had worm infections. Her answer came very quickly. “Everyone has them.”

Given these harrowing glimpses into the frightening world of parasites, you may wonder why I would include them in a series of stories extolling the gifts provided us by the Universe. I do so in spite of the fact that they have great potential for causing us misery. Parasitic organisms may indeed generate fear and loathing among our kind but they should also engender in us a sense of wonderment at the prodigiously sophisticated interrelationships which exist among earth’s biodiversity. The array of behavioral, biochemical, and organic adaptations such organisms have evolved are truly astounding in their complexity. Perhaps more than any other group of organisms, the parasites give us cause to reflect upon just how much organic variety natural selection, operating over eons of time, can create.

One final thought. As I’ve said, here in the United States we are often isolated from many of the parasitic ills afflicting the poorer nations of the world. Our systems of sanitary waste disposal, meat inspection, and medical care provide us the luxury of giving little thought to the nightmarish possibilities of infection by these organisms. However, more and more of us travel the world these days. We may take with us the attitude that parasites are rare creatures that attack other people. We would be better advised to remember that there are still monsters out there. Be wary of the ice cubes in your drink. Give serious thought before eating that crisp, freshly washed lettuce salad. Think twice about nonchalantly allowing a mosquito to alight upon your arm. My advice: be careful. Be very, very careful out there.

Photo Credits:

Cymothoa exigua courtesy of Elkin Fricke at commons.wikimedia.org

Elephantiasis victim courtesy of O.G. Mason in Illustrations of Skin Diseases by G.H. Fox

Botfly adult by J. Eibl USDA

Botfly larva courtesy of Geoff Gallice at commons.wikimedia.org

Botfly removal courtesy of ohmyhealth.in









15. The Stealth Attack: Part 3 – No, Humans Are Not Immune.

In my previous blog, I introduced the notion that humans, like insects and mollusks, may also be the subjects of involuntary behavioral control resulting from parasitic infection. May I now introduce Toxoplasma, a leading candidate for such a human behavior manipulator?

                Toxoplasma is a protozoan, one of the vast Kingdom of single-celled creatures that swarm in the earth’s waters, soils, and yes – within other organisms. Many of you, although you may not know its name, have heeded warnings about Toxoplasma exposure. This is the parasite often found in cat feces and thus the admonitions to be careful when cleaning your cats’ litter box. This is particularly true for pregnant women as the parasite can be transmitted to the fetus with potentially dangerous results. Infection with this protozoan is known as toxoplasmosis and it is common in a variety of mammals. These include cats, rodents, pigs, and humans. By some estimates, nearly thirty percent of the world’s human population is infected with Toxoplasma.  Normally the protozoan, after causing initial flu-like symptoms, resides in the human body without further affect – or so it was thought.

I had been aware for some time of the hijacking of the behavioral instincts of rats by Toxoplasma.  Since rats are a potential prey of cats, it makes sense that they would serve as a link in the completion of the parasites’ life cycle. It seems a cycle such as: protozoan reproduces in cat – protozoan in cat feces – feces in soil – accidental ingestion of protozoan by rat – cat eats rat – would be straightforward enough. But, here again, we are dealing with the strange world of behavioral manipulation by a parasite. Studies have shown that the rat is programmed by Toxoplasma to engage in behavior which makes the rodent much more likely to be eaten by a cat. In other words, the parasite guides rodent behaviors which will increase the likelihood of its return to the gut of a cat host. Here it can reproduce and continue the completion of its life cycle.

For obvious reasons, rats are normally extremely averse to having a meeting with a cat. When these rodents are infected with Toxoplasma however, their behavior changes dramatically. They are more prone to actively expose themselves and their reaction to danger is slowed. Normally, a rat smelling cat urine responds by freezing, analyzing its surroundings, and then scurrying for cover. Rats harboring Toxoplasma do the exact opposite. They seem to actually be attracted to cat urine and are quite content to ignore their instinct to avoid a meeting with their feline nemesis. Research suggests that, upon exposure to cat urine, Toxoplasma is actually biochemically activating a part of the rat brain associated with sexual attraction. This powerful urge then overrides the rat’s inclination to flee from signs of the presence of a predator. In other words, Toxoplasma is altering the behavior of the rat in order to make it more likely that a cat will ingest the parasite and thus will the protozoan be transmitted to other feline hosts.

Could Toxoplasma be causing behavioral changes in humans sheltering the parasite? An article by Kathleen McAuliffe which appeared in The Atlantic in 2012* certainly seems to suggest as much. Recall that most people infected with this parasite experience it in its so-called latent form. After the initial flu-like reaction, it was thought to lie quietly in the neurons of our brain without harm. Some scientists now suspect that Toxoplasma is not such a benign resident.  This was the gist of McAuliffe’s article which profiled a Czech biologist, Jaroslav Flegr, who was himself infected with Toxoplasma. For many years Flegr was puzzled by some aspects of his behavior. He reported in the interview with McAuliffe that he thought nothing of walking into a busy, traffic-filled street. Honks of irritation from oncoming motorists he met with total indifference. Furthermore, he openly criticized the ruling Communist Party, a most dangerous endeavor at that time. Doing research in a war torn area of Turkey, he was surprised that his reaction to nearby gunfire was complete lack of distress and absence of any instinct to take cover. All of these behaviors bore an uncanny resemblance to the daredevil antics of a rat with toxoplasmosis.

After reading articles regarding parasitic mind control among invertebrates, Flegr began to suspect that he might be similarly affected. He had himself tested and discovered that he did indeed have toxoplasmosis. We should think of humans as a dead end in this parasite’s life cycle (cats usually don’t eat humans). However, we are similar enough in genetic and physiological makeup to other mammals that it seems reasonable to assume that Toxoplasma might not “know” the difference. Pursuing this line of reasoning, Flegr’s investigations revealed that humans infected with Toxoplasma showed inattentiveness and delayed reaction times as do infected rodents. His research showed that certain drivers, as a result, were nearly twice as likely to be involved in vehicular accidents if they carried the latent Toxoplasma. Perhaps even more disturbing, science is suggesting that Toxoplasma may be involved in triggering schizophrenia in susceptible humans. Furthermore, a 2012 Scientific American article reports that researchers now also suspect a link between toxoplasmosis and an increased risk of suicide.

I find the thought that parasitic infection could cause such serious psychological manifestations among us humans quite alarming. One cannot help reexamining the extensive list of endoparasites which make humans their home – roundworms, tapeworms, flukes, protozoans. In the process, we are left to wonder just how many other neuroses or psychotic manifestations of Homo sapiens may someday be traced to our eerily creepy stealth attackers.


* https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/03/how-your-cat-is-making-you-crazy/308873/


I recently became aware of another possible actor in the drama of parasitic mind control. I was reading Oliver Sacks’ fascinating book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. In his book Sacks, who was a neurologist for almost five decades, recounts case histories of patients with peculiar, often bizarre neurological disorders.

One of his patients was a 90 year old woman named Natasha. She came to Dr. Sacks after noticing a change in her behavior which had begun when she was 88. The doctor, of course, inquired as to what sort of change she had noticed. “Delightful!” she exclaimed. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt more energetic, more alive – I felt young once again. I took an interest in the young men. I started to feel, you might say, frisky – yes, frisky.”

In the course of receiving Natasha’s medical history Dr. Sacks found that she had worked in a brothel over 60 years ago. She revealed that, like most of her coworkers, she had acquired syphilis during this time. As you know, this is a highly contagious, sexually transmitted disease caused by a bacterium named Treponema pallidum. This bacterium is a type of spirochete, so-called because of its helically spiraled shape.

The disease syphilis typically occurs in stages. The so-called tertiary stage may occur years after the initial infection. Although not infective at this time, the victim may experience serious symptoms such as loss of muscle control, depression, mania, and dementia. Death may ensue.

Natasha described her illness as, “something in my body, my, brain that was making me high.” To Dr. Sacks’ surprise, she then self-diagnosed herself as having “Cupid’s Disease”, a term with which he was unfamiliar. “All the girls called it that,” she said. The doctor proceeded to test her spinal fluid. “She was right; the spinal fluid was positive, she did have neurosyphilis, it was indeed the spirochetes stimulating her ancient cerebral cortex.”

I have as yet found no clinical studies affirming that Treponema increases promiscuity or the libido of its host (as in Natasha’s case). But in light of the impact of Toxoplasma on human behavior (as described above), it seems a possibility. After all, what better way could the syphilis bacterium ensure continued species survival than by making its human host feel – shall we say frisky?

Photo Credits:

Cat and pregnant women courtesy of findatopdoc.com

People ignoring danger courtesy of upsplash.com

The Scream by Edvard Munch via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain,

Toxoplamosis gondii courtesy of The Center for Disease Control

Toxoplasmosis life cycle courtesy of researchgate.net

syphilis bacterium by Dr. David Cox @ en.wikipedia.org


14. The Stealth Attack: Part 2 – This Being the Story of How a Snail Became a Zombie

That long-ago encounter with the Cordyceps fungus (described in Part 1 of this series) spurred my interest in determining whether other, similar mind-controlling parasites exist. Not surprisingly, they do. I find such symbiotic interactions between parasite and host to be both fascinating in their intricacy and disturbing in their manifestations.

For example, there is Leucochloridium. This parasite is a fluke, a type of flatworm. Although many flatworms are free-living, the group also contains a plethora of species which have evolutionarily opted for the parasitic way of life. All of the vertebrates, including mammals and birds, are subject to parasitism by some kind of fluke. In the case at hand, it is the alteration of the host’s behavior that makes Leucochloridium yet another fascinating example of the bizarre and creepy world of the endoparasites.

Leucochloridium parasitizes birds. The big problem faced by Leucochloridium, and parasites in general, is how to get from one host to another. Endoparasites are highly and specifically adapted for surviving in the warm, dark, nutrient rich innards of their host. They are not built to function in what for them is the hostile outer world we humans inhabit. Here the atmosphere is highly oxygenated, there is intense sunlight, and ambient temperatures are highly variable. Yet, to continue their species, they must find a way to insinuate their adult progeny into the internal organs of another host.

We must now ask, how does a flatworm (Leucochloridium) which lives in the rectum of a bird ensure that its descendants find a similar warm, fecal-laden home in a different bird? As with many endoparasites, the answer lies in the use of an intermediate host animal within which the larval stages go through their transitional, developmental steps. Flukes commonly use snails as intermediate hosts and Leucochloridium is no exception.

The life cycle begins as the adult flatworm voids its eggs into the surrounding rectum of its bird host. The intestinal wastes of the bird are thus loaded with the fluke’s eggs. A foraging snail, the intermediate host of the flatworm, happens upon the bird feces and begins to feed. The eggs are coincidentally ingested with the fecal material. Subsequently they hatch and go through a series of developmental stages. Having reached a phase at which they are ready to infect another bird, the fluke larvae perform a most interesting migration. Called cercariae at this stage, the larvae migrate through the snail’s body and into the tentacles on the head. You might be familiar with these as the long stalks at the end of which are located the snail’s eyes.  As a result of infiltration by the larvae, the tentacles (or often one tentacle) become engorged and distended. Even more remarkably, they appear to pulsate like a neon sign in response to exposure to light (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0Ytm2U4Ch0). For birds, this banded, animated appearance bears a remarkable resemblance to a caterpillar. Of course caterpillars are a favorite food of many bird species. And remember, these puffed-up tentacles are packed with fluke larvae very much needing to get into a bird.

And now the curious issue of parasitic mind control again enters the equation. Snails normally prefer dark habitats. Here the air is more humid which helps to prevent dehydration of their moist molluscan body. The dark niches of their world also offer protection from predators seeking a nice meal of escargot. But snails infected by Leucochloridium shun the dark, hidden places. They boldly venture out into the daylight. Goaded by biochemical signals from the parasite, they become even more incautious and climb up onto grasses and trees thus making themselves even more conspicuous. Perched here in the broad daylight, with their pulsating, caterpillar-like tentacles the snails are attractive targets for birds. Perceiving what it thinks is a caterpillar, a bird will swoop down and attack the snail’s infected tentacle. In the process, it comes away not with a young insect but a nice package of fluke larvae. These move on into the bird’s digestive tract and, voila, the life cycle of the fluke is completed. Again, the thing that strikes me as so uncanny is the manner in which the parasite changes the behavior of its host. The hapless snail which, under normal conditions, eschews the light and the dry air suddenly behaves in exactly the opposite manner. And, as a result, the parasite’s life cycle needs are brought to a perfect ending. How weird! This would be a campfire tale guaranteed to keep little snails up all night.

How about one more example of the strange world of parasitic mind control? Although it uses venom as a rather more straightforward method for controlling its host, the life cycle of the little emerald cockroach wasp is still a marvel of evolution. As the name suggests, this is a small (a bit less than an inch) wasp with a beautiful metallic greenish-bluish body color. And, it does indeed parasitize cockroaches. As you might guess, it is the manner in which it does so that is dumbfounding.

Upon locating a cockroach the female wasp stings it. Surprisingly (and precisely) she does so twice. The first sting is administered into the abdomen at the exact point necessary to paralyze the cockroach’s two front legs. Now the wasp is able to work around the roach’s head without any counterattack from these appendages. Again bringing her sting to bear, the wasp injects her venom into the portion of the cockroach’s nervous system called the subesophageal ganglion, a sort of insect sub-brain. The result of this sting is that the roach loses its will to escape.  Although capable of movement, the hapless victim behaves like some arthropod robot and passively waits for the wasp to continue its ghastly work. Now, taking hold of one of the cockroach’s antennae with its jaws, the wasp leads its host to a previously prepared burrow in the ground. Like a well-trained dog on a lead, the cockroach obediently allows itself to be ushered, by the wasp, down into its own tomb.

Having arrived in the burrow, the wasp proceeds to lay a single egg on the abdomen of the amazingly cooperative cockroach. Still the roach shows no inclination to flee. The wasp now clambers out of the burrow and backfills it with soil or small pebbles. In a few days, the wasp’s larva emerges from the egg. As with other hymenopterans, the larva resembles a fly maggot. This larva now begins to feed on the ill-fated cockroach and, in so doing, gradually moves into the cockroach’s abdominal cavity. Incidentally, recent research has shown that the larvae of this wasp secrete antibiotic laden saliva which kills bacteria harbored within the cockroach’s body. These are bacteria which might be harmful to the grub. Could this be yet another biological source of antibiotic for human use? Time will tell.

After several days of feasting, the wasp larva forms a pupa inside the cockroach’s body. From here, it soon emerges as an adult wasp. Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. Anyone else thinking of Ridley Scott’s Alien trilogy? It seems that, in this case, the wasp is using its toxin to block certain insect neurological pathways. Although perhaps less biochemically complicated than the mind altering mechanisms of Cordyceps or Leucochloridium, we still must marvel at the complexity and efficiency of this diminutive wasp’s behavioral repertoire.

One might presume to meditate upon the fact that it is a really good thing that humans don’t fall prey to such insidious parasitic mind control. Of course, in making such a presumption, we would likely be kidding ourselves. We must recognize that humans are biological organisms too – undeniably solid citizens of good-standing within the Kingdom Animalia. As a result, we should be considerably more surprised if we were not considered fair game by such parasites. In fact, research suggests very strongly that humans are far from immune to the mind-bending antics of parasites.

For a glimpse into the disconcertingly disturbing world of parasitic mind control in humans, be sure to keep an eye out for The Stealth Attack – Part 3.

Photo Credits:
Leucochloridium graphic - Intro.to Parasitology by Chandler and Read
Leucochloridium infected snail - Thomas Hahmann at Wikimedia Commons
Emerald Cockroach Wasp - courtesy of bioweb.uwlax.edu
Wasp with Cockroach - courtesy of creativecommons.com


13. The Stealth Attack: Part 1 – The Creepy World of Parasitic Mind-control

Walking within the tropical rainforest of the Peruvian Amazon is always an adventure. One never quite knows what to expect next. It could be a hitherto un-encountered monkey species, an important medicinal plant, a spectacularly colored bird, or a Yagua hunter moving stealthily along the path blowpipe in hand. On this occasion, the encounter involved an insect and it opened a window into an often hidden aspect of tropical rainforest biology both fascinating and disturbing.

As I slowly and quietly stepped along the trail, with my companion and guide Pablo, I scanned the surrounding forest floor and middle stories of the trees. We had already had good luck that morning with excellent views of saddle-backed tamarins and squirrel monkeys. I had also gotten my first look at one of my favorite Amazonian birds, a stunning little wire-tailed manakin – a gem of the rainforest not to mention one of its most accomplished dancers. As we continued along the trail, my eyes wandered over the surrounding vegetation. On the lookout for any movement, I also scanned for the quiet presence of eyelash viper, a species prone to lie about on low vegetation. This habit made it a good idea to always look ahead and be aware of where one placed arms, legs, and torso. As I glanced to my left, I noticed a liana creeping from the ground and ascending at a shallow angle up into a nearby tree. Perched upon this liana was a small insect. But what a strange little insect it was. Protruding from its body was what I took to be a pair of exceedingly long antennae. But something didn’t seem quite right; the antennae seemed greatly out of proportion to the insect’s size. Stepping closer, I recognized the insect as a snout beetle. Curculionids are

so-called because the front of their head is elongated and forms what appears to be an extended proboscis. Surprisingly, the structures that I had mistaken for antennae were not that at all. First, they were not growing from the head where they should have been. I now saw that they were actually two long filaments extending upwards from the joint between the head and the thorax of the beetle.  And, the end of each filament bore an oval, thin-walled sac. These were not antennae. They were the spore producing organs of a fungus! So, here it was at last. I had finally encountered the legendary Cordyceps fungus, the stuff of science fiction nightmare.

Some days previously such a fungus had released its spores into the air. One of these spores, wafted upon the minuscule breezes which circulate near the forest floor, had landed upon the unsuspecting snout beetle whose corpse now rested before me.  From the spore, minute threadlike filaments which form the vegetative body of a fungus had begun to grow. Aided by their enzyme secretions, these mycelia penetrated the beetle’s first line of defense, its chitinous exoskeleton. Now they began to grow into the insect’s body. But here is where the intriguing part of the Cordyceps story really begins.

One would think that, having gained access to the soft tissues, the fungus would begin to randomly eat away at this nutrient rich flesh. But this is not so. Guided by some elaborate but mysterious biochemical “instinct”, the fungus had begun to feed on its unsuspecting host in a highly selective manner. While using the beetle as a food source, the fungus had diligently avoided feasting on any of the insect’s vital organs. Damage to any organs which might quickly kill its host was studiously avoided by the Cordyceps. Slowly, over a period of days, the fungus digested the non-vital tissues of its host insect. Having eaten its fill so to speak, the fungus now began to exert what is inarguably its most astounding influence on the hapless victim. Through the use of incompletely understood biochemical mechanisms, the fungus initiated a sudden change in the behavior of its insect host.

The snout beetle was seized by an irresistible urge to leave its home on the forest floor and to climb. Ascending onto the liana the beetle, most remarkably, scaled to a specific height above the ground. Here at its final position the altitude, humidity, and exposure to gentle breezes were precisely correct for the Cordyceps to have its reproductive cells dispersed. Having reached this optimal perch, the fungus proceeded to complete its digestion of the insect’s internal organs and to grow its spore producing organs.

In some cases, fungi of this type cause even more bizarrely specific behaviors. Ants infected in such a way may not just climb to a precise height about the ground. They are also induced by the fungal parasite to clamp their jaws onto a stem or leaf petiole with great force. Thus fastened to its perch the ant, after its death, is less likely to fall back to the forest floor before the fungi’s spores are released into the air. Based upon fossil evidence, it appears that this fungus-insect relationship may have evolved several tens of millions of years ago. As this scenario played through my mind, I reflected back to a comment I once heard made by a tropical rainforest biologist. Referring to this type of fungi’s devious biochemical mind control of the host he said, “. . . and we refer to the fungi as a lower form of life?”

Although they now reside within their own taxonomic kingdom, several generations of biologists once thought of fungi as odd members of the plant kingdom. Fungi lack the indicators of complexity we humans hold in high esteem such as mobility, a central nervous system, and some degree of intelligence. In light of this, the ability of an organism such as Cordyceps to invade an animal and take over control of its mental faculties is downright astounding – and scary. Lest you think that Cordyceps is unique in its uncanny ability to turn its host into a virtual zombie, stay tuned. The Stealth Attack Part 2 will be coming soon.

Photo Credits:
saddle-backed tamarin courtesy of the Univ. of Windsor Bio. Dept.
wire-tailed manakin by Juniorgirotto at Wikimedia Commons
eyelash viper at Wikimedia Commons
fungus-infected ant by Bernard DuPont at Wikimedia Commons
fungi cluster courtesy of sceincing.com
fungus-infected beetle by the author



12. Walking With Friends


The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”                 

                                                                                            Henry David Thoreau – Walking

Today’s walk was a solo; a couple of miles on a beautiful late-summer morning. Though fitness had crossed my mind as a motivation for the jaunt, I could not argue with Mr. Thoreau. The walk, undertaken as an important component of my day, was indeed justification enough.

Living in rural Sullivan County, Indiana I am blessed with the ability to amble down my lane and out onto the local roadway without much fear of interference from that nuisance one finds on most roads – traffic. This time I am a bit chagrined, as I start my jaunt, when a neighbor’s car passes me. On an errand to town I imagine. Most times I will have these two miles to myself and can walk on the left, right, or leisurely amble right down the middle of 225 South if I so choose. Odds are thus quite high that the only sounds impinging upon my tympanic membranes will be natural – northern cardinal, pileated woodpecker, wind caressing the leaves of the maples and oaks, a lingering cicada or a few late-to-bed katydids. I suppose a person fully committed to the urban life might find such a stroll alarmingly dull; no people to watch, no vehicles to appraise, no beckoning sidewalk café for coffee and the morning news.  As for me, I do not relish the idea of spending this morning’s ramble and mediation with a crowd. The single car that passed this morning was intrusion enough thank you.

Yet, in spite of what I have said, do not imagine that I am really alone on this morning stroll. I have dozens of acquaintances with whom I share the break of day. They may be voiceless and immobile but they speak to me just the same. They energize my mind and bring a flood of memories, contemplations, and conjectures. My walk proceeds not as a dull plod but as a compulsory meditation upon the many living wonders residing near at hand. The friends, of whom I speak, so easily unheeded by many who would pass along this path are the common flowering plants of a lonely Indiana back-road.

Several of the acquaintances I meet remind me of why so many communities in this area have descriptive names such as Prairie Creek, Prairieton, Indian Prairie, or Shaker Prairie. This morning, at various spots along my road, I am greeted by big bluestem, little bluestem, cup plant, tall goldenrod, common milkweed, Indian grass, and butterfly weed. All these represent remnants of the fingers of tallgrass prairie which probed the vacant spots along the western flanks of North America’s immense, eastern deciduous forest. It is impossible for me to consider these plants and not have my mind rush backwards as though I have exerted a forceful pull on the operative lever of H.G. Well’s time machine. I try with all my might to picture a sea of these plants, and many other species of course, stretching away to the horizon. What a vista it must have been; the bluestem, tall as a man on horseback, rippling in the wind and interspersed with inestimable acres of purple coneflower, leadplant, blazing star, rattlesnake master, grama grass, cutleaf silphium, partridge pea, queen of the prairie, and rosinweed! A herd of American bison, numbering in multiples of a thousand, can be seen slowly cruising among the prairie plants and industriously converting sunlight energy into muscle, sinew, and bone. It is a grand scene that plays in my mind. Admittedly, my vision is tinged with melancholy as I recall that over ninety percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie is now gone. I am reminded of the words of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold.  “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.”     

But I refuse to be morose on such a beautiful fall morning. I admire the remnants of the once mighty prairie and walk onward in anticipation of seeing other friends. As I move along, I am reminded that our native plants are often freely mixed among others who exist here as a result of human handiwork. The number of introduced plant species encountered is quite staggering as I continue to contemplate the floral world along my route. Many of these plants came from Europe with the early immigrants to North America. Others have come by way of Asia. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources says that a quarter of the two-thousand species of vascular plants in Indiana are introduced. No wonder I am meeting so many foreigners this morning. I often find myself surprised to learn that a plant I had always assumed was native has in fact been transported here from some far, alien shore. Most of these plants have been here for so long that they have become naturalized into the landscape and do little harm. Others are concrete examples of good human intention gone horribly wrong. To be honest, they are the antitheses of plant friends. For example, standing here and there above the roadside ditches are three of the nastiest invasive plants in Sullivan County. Autumn olive, bush honeysuckle, and multiflora rose are all natives of Asia. Imported as ornamentals and to enhance wildlife habitat, they have become major problems. Multiflora rose was even promoted as a living fence at one time; I remember a neighbor whose cattle pasture was so enclosed. This plant, like the other two, produces a fruit attractive to birds and has thus been spread far and wide by means of the bird’s droppings. The formation of dense thickets, the crowding out of native plants, and the possession of thorns big enough to rip the flesh are the charms now offered throughout the countryside by this ghastly addition to Indiana’s flora. I’ve spent many a rabbit hunt cursing the nameless individual who first imported this plant. While autumn olive and bush honeysuckle lack the viciousness of multiflora rose, they do accomplish much the same damage in regards to their prolificacy and displacement of native plants. If nothing else, these plants should serve as monuments to the hubris and lack of foresight of humans.  The list of invasive plants and animals abetted by the actions of mankind would fill a good sized book. The disastrous effect of invasives upon the native flora and fauna of various countries of the world would fill several volumes I imagine.

But, as I have said, most of our introduced plants behave themselves as well-mannered guests should. I find myself more accepting of these polite exotics. Certainly the introduced plants I now see are less intrusive than the scoundrels mentioned above. In fact, I find them downright attractive. Queen Anne’s lace is a lovely, white-flowered native of Europe and a relative of the domestic carrot. There are also dandelions to be seen here and there.  Another European native, this plant is also a common member of that diverse assemblage of flora that passes for my lawn. Many berate the dandelion for its audacity in marring their well-manicured yard. But I welcome it and sometimes take advantage of it in the spring when, upon experiencing a dearth of morels, I pick the blossoms and fry them in egg, flour, and butter. Thus prepared they are quite delicious. This morning I see chicory too; its vibrant blue flowers stand out like little neon signs along the road. Another Eurasian import, chicory has a long history of use by humans both as a food and as a coffee substitute.

Strolling onward, scanning the roadside ditch, I notice a patch of cattails taking advantage of the wet soil there. This plant has long intrigued me for the eclectic uses it offered generations of native peoples.  The long, durable leaves could be woven into mats for floor or wall. The roots are quite edible. They remind me somewhat of cabbage. I’ve been told that cattail pollen has served as a substitute for flour in making pancakes. It is also a plant much favored for nesting by one of my favorite birds, the red-winged blackbird. Sadly, this plant has been replaced over much of its range here in Sullivan County by a non-native subspecies of Phragmites. This very tall invasive grass grows in dense stands, blocks shorelines, forms virtually impenetrable stands, and in my eyes has none of the virtues of the cattail.

Ahead there is a nice thicket of blackberry. The berries themselves are gone now but they bring back recent memories of a luscious blackberry cobbler, homemade and liberally covered with ice cream. They also remind me of the labor intensive work required to collect them. One can expect badly scratched hands as a souvenir of gathering them as well. Here is a life lesson perhaps. Something as coveted as a blackberry cobbler does not come without effort.

Next there comes an impressively tall mullein plant, another visitor from Europe. Its broad rosettes of soft, furry leaves lie close to the ground. Pioneer girls made doll blankets from these. As boys my brother and I found the long, erect flower stems to be good substitutes for lances and yes, of course we threw them at each other. The plant having been here for over two centuries, some Native American tribes used mullein for medicinal purposes. Smoking the dried leaves was said to treat respiratory conditions such as bronchitis.

As I meander onward, I notice some pokeweed. It has grown since spring. As a result it is much taller than me now and has a significant accumulation of toxins in its roots, stems, leaves, and fruits. Earlier in the year the leaves could be washed and used in a salad or boiled and eaten as poke greens. A change of water between boilings is recommended.  Several species of birds feed on pokeweed berries and are unaffected by its poisonous components phytolaccine, phytolaccatoxin, and phytolaccigenin.

Here and there I see common milkweed plants. It is after all, as the name suggests, ubiquitous; at least along this road.  These plants get their name from the milky looking sap that is exuded from an injured stem.  This sap contains toxic cardiac glycosides, the potency of which varies among species. The plants have formed pods and will soon be drying, cracking, and releasing their airborne seeds. As a youngster, I found it impossible to walk by a milkweed plant and not be tempted to stop and help disperse the seeds. There was a captivating beauty in seeing the small, flattened, black seeds whisked into the air by a stiff breeze. Riding the air currents, their cotton-like fluff caught the wind and parachuted the seeds to great heights and far distances. I stood mesmerized by the spectacle of these little packets of starch and DNA being launched into the waiting landscape. What was their fate I wondered? How many would fall upon fertile ground? How many would find the inhospitable world of tarmac, concrete, or water? Away from my road, these plants have been significantly displaced by farming and herbicide application. This is detrimental to the monarch butterfly whose population has undergone drastic decline in the past twenty years or so. Their larvae feed exclusively upon milkweed leaves and incorporate the plant’s toxins into their tissues. Thus they become foul tasting and poisonous to predators. I see no monarchs on today’s walk.

All along the way, where there are adjoining woodlands, I see an abundant plant which can be lethal. White snakeroot is plentiful in the open woodlots here and it contains a poison called tremetol.  This toxin contaminates the meat and milk of cattle which graze the plant. The result is a disease called milk sickness. This disorder was common in the 1800’s and caused the death of many people in the Midwest. When reading about this plant, the victim most famously mentioned is Abraham Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. She died from milk sickness in 1818. Eventually the connection between white snakeroot and the disease came to be understood, apparently as the result of herbal lore passed from a Shawnee woman. The flowers of the plant are attractive and my wife often uses them in fresh-cut bouquets. The fluffy, white blossoms arranged in flat-headed panicles upon the upper stems appear quite innocuous. A curious but uninformed observer would never guess the tragic history of this plant’s relationship with our pioneer ancestors.

A last, fetching acquaintance greets me along my way. Standing tall with their vibrant, purplish pink flowers demanding notice is a nice stand of native Joe-Pye weed. I pause a moment to consider exactly what it is we mean when we describe a plant as a weed. Most often it seems the term is used for any plant that is growing where a human doesn’t want it. Marion Jackson in his The Natural Heritage of Indiana quotes R.W. Emerson’s definition of a weed. I like this one better. “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Joe-Pye is a perfect example. Seen along the roadside from an automobile whizzing along at a mile a minute one might indeed be inclined to remark, “Look at that pretty weed.” But gardeners know better. Joe-Pye weed is virtuous as an ornamental plant. Its height and lush, umbrella-shaped, mauve flowers make it stand out as a bold addition to a garden or landscaping project. Furthermore, the very name of the plant alludes to its reputed virtues as a medicinal plant. Legend tells us that Joe Pye was the English name taken by a Native American healer who demonstrated the medicinal properties of the plant to settlers in New England. Teas made from Joe-Pye weed were said to be useful in treating everything from typhoid to rheumatism to impotence. Another name for the plant (gravel-root) was derived from its purported effect in eliminating kidney and gall bladder stones. Are there chemicals in this plant that act as genuine wonder drugs? Although many of our modern drugs are derived from plants, I know of no scientific evidence confirming the efficacy of Joe-Pye weed. Still, as I take leave of this beautiful plant, I can’t help but wonder. Could it be that the Native Americans, with their intimate connection with the natural world, knew something we have yet to fully elucidate and appreciate?

Turning toward home, I mull over the morning’s visit among my plant friends. I have been quite content upon my otherwise solitary walk. As the main enterprise of the day, the walk has given me much. The mental gymnastics spawned by my encounters with the plants have been substantial and entertaining. There has been pure esthetic appreciation, the consideration of humankind’s role in plant biogeography, contemplations of plant pharmacology, and reflections upon youthful memories. Just as importantly, there has been a constant, exceedingly powerful sense of being present in the moment. I have felt the persuasive awareness of being a member of the vast community of living things which make our earth so remarkably fecund and diverse. I dare say these considerations and emotions are available to you as well. Granted, you may not have the luxury of commandeering a rural road as your own personal byway. But, be not swayed. The local park, the nearby forest, even the city avenue await. They all have their plant communities standing in anticipation of your visit. Learn to identify some of your local plants. Walk among them. Really look at them. Think about them. Your new friends will reward you with many an enjoyable hour.

Image Credits:
Hiker silhouette courtesy hikingproject.com
Cattail courtesy USFWS at commons.wikimedia.org
White Snakeroot by Homer Edward Price (flickr)
All other images by the author


11. A Close Encounter of the Third Kind

= encounters in which an animated creature is present. These include               humanoids, robots, and humans who seem to be occupants or pilots of a UFO 

J. Allen Hynek

My apologies to the late Dr. Hynek for appropriating one of his levels of alien encounter classification. After all, though I most certainly encountered animated creatures, they were neither occupants nor pilots of a UFO. They were not robotic and they were definitely not humanoid in form.  However the realm they inhabited was alien, in most respects totally unfamiliar to me. In actuality, their world could be life-threateningly hostile for a mere human such as me. Their modes of obtaining food, moving about, and reproduction were as strange to me as the behaviors of a being from Dune, Pandora, or Dagobah might be.

As strange as it may seem, meeting these creatures required only simple opportunity on my part. True, the opportunity itself necessitated a bit of effort. Over four thousand miles of travel, some ten hours of flight at three-fourths the speed of sound were necessary. The reward was the chance to peer beneath the stunning, ink-blue waters of the vast Pacific. There, near Kona just off the west coast of Hawaii’s big island, I met the alien creature of my close encounter – the manta ray.

What an amazing animal, surely one of the “endless forms most wonderful” which have inspired me to write the essays you find here. Via Animal Planet or the National Geographic channel, I had long watched these wondrously graceful animals winging their way through their ocean home. I had peered at the screen with envious desire, never imagining that one day I too would find myself afloat in their realm. But, happily, sometimes our dreams do come true.

Snorkeling with manta rays, an adventure provided by  Big Island Divers in Kona, was a family affair. Our trip began aboard the worthy vessel Honu Iki sailing from Honokohau Marina. The boat’s crew made our trip a delightful bundle of exploration, learning, and pure enjoyment. The amiable Captain Mikey delivered his instructions and bits of information with splendidly dry wit and charm. I suspect he would have a good chance of success in a second career as a standup comic. Lucas and Griffin were helpful with equipment fitting and use and hovered over us like protective parents. Snorkel guide Molly gave us an informative introduction to the biology of manta rays and the need for their protection. As I listened to her, I reflected upon the fact that virtually every charismatic animal I learn about these days seems to be under assault.

Manta rays I learned include the largest of all the world’s ray species and are distributed worldwide, mostly in tropical and subtropical waters. Rays are related to sharks and like them have skeletons of cartilage rather than bone. We might think of rays as sharks with really, really huge pectoral fins. The wingspan of the large oceanic mantas averages around twenty-two feet and their weight may be well more than a ton. The more coastal reef mantas are smaller but can still exceed ten feet in wingspan. Manta rays are long-lived individuals, often surving four decades or more. During this time they remain constantly on the move as their modes of breathing and feeding both require the movement of large amounts of water over their gill structures.

Manta rays, like most sharks, give birth to living young. This type of reproduction is called ovoviviparity (c.f. humans who are viviparous). In this type of reproduction, eggs are produced but not immediaely laid. Rather they  are retained inside the female until the fetus is developed sufficiently to be born. As with sharks, manta rays practice internal fertilization of their eggs. Males can be distinguished from females by the structure of the former’s pelvic fins. These have folded lobes, referred to as claspers, which are used as a “penis” during mating. Manta pups are around fifty inches in wingspan and weigh twenty pounds or more when born. Normally one pup is produced every two or three years. Such a low birth rate can spell trouble for any animal that is under threat. Female mantas probably don’t sexually mature until they are eight to ten years old. Coupled with their low reproductive rate, this means that species such as the manta simply cannot produce young at a frequency which allows them to recover from over-exploitation.

It is likely that manta rays have been in the subsistence diet of indigenous peoples throughut history. This relatively small harvest manta ray populations could tolerate. The problem now is that manta rays have been commercially targeted. With the use of modern fishing equipment and techniques, large declines in their population numbers have been seen. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that observed sightings/landings of mantas in the Indo-Pacific Region have declined by ninety-seven percent. The reason for the sudden commericial interest in manta rays? A market has developed for the dried gill rakers of these rays. Although there is apparently no historical usage of these structures in traditional Chinese medicine (nor any scientific evidence of their efficacy), the belief has arisen that manta ray gills may provide relief for everything from acne to cancer. Ninety-nine percent of the gill raker trade is centered in Guanzhou, China. The conservation organization SharkSavers reports that sixty-one thousand kilograms (sixty-seven tons) of manta gill material worth US $11 000 000 has been traded there yearly. Such tonnage represents the death of some ninety-seven thousand manta (and devil) rays.

Many countries now recognize that this degree of exploitation of manta rays is not sustainable. At least fiftenn countries now prohibit the harvesting of manta rays. For example, in 2014 Indonesia announced that it had enacted legislation to protect all manta rays in an almost six million square kilometer area under its jurisdiction. Policing of such protections is difficult in countries such as Indonesia with its far flung and numerous islands. Thus it still shows up as a major source of manta ray gill rakers on the accompanying graphic from the SharkSavers website. Still, one must be encouraged by the intent. There may be hope for the manta ray. It has been noted that sales of gill rakers in Guangzhou were 60.5 tons in 2011 and 120.5 tons in 2015 with a subsequent decline due to conservation campaigns and changes in government policies.

Economics has rested at the core of the assault on manta rays. Perhaps finances may ultimately lie at the heart of recovery for these species as well. Fisherman are said to receive, depending on the ray’s size, anywhere from forty dollars to five-hundred dollars for harvesting a manta ray. A 2013 article by Douglas Siefert (The Million Dollar Mantas), which appeared in the journal of the Royal Geographical Society, has pointed out that living manta rays are worth considerably more. Lots more! He uses the mantas of Kona, Hawaii, some of which I encountered, as an example. In the Kailua-Kona area, dive and snorkel operators earn           US$3 400 000 per year directly from manta ray excursions. Further, there are known to be 146 manta rays in the resident population.  Thus, each of the identified mantas generates US$23,288 a year in revenue. Because of their lengthy lifespan (40+ years), each of these mantas may generate $1 000 000 of revenue over the course of its life. Siefert points out that this doesn’t take into account the money manta excursions funnel toward hotel and car rentals, restaurants, airfares, taxes, and employment. Compared to the worth of a dead manta ray, these are astounding (and attractive) figures for consideration by those who might be able to initiate manta ray viewing trips in their own locales. Let us hope that simple economics can be the engine that drives the preservation of these magnificent creatures. But now, let me climb down from my soapbox and tell you what I saw myself.

At 6:15P HST, the Honu Iki eased out of Konohokau Harbor bound for waters just offshore the Ellison Onizuka-Kona International Airport six miles away. Our boat rose and plunged over the broad, gently rolling swells of the open sea as we motored northward. The sun approached the western horizon and we eagerly anticipated another of the stunning Hawaiian sunsets to which we had become accustomed.

The waters of the Pacific were a lovely deep blue when we began. Slowly they morphed into inky blackness as the sun at last disappeared below the far horizon. Snorkeling with the manta rays was a night mission.

Arriving at our destination, the Honu Iki tied-off to an underwater mooring and preparations for the evening’s dive began. Of course there had to be some means by which manta rays might be attracted to our parking spot so that we could see them. The Pacific is a little too large to simply jump over the side with fingers crossed in hope of good luck. The secret to our success was to first set up an irresistible buffet for the benefit of the rays.

Like the massive baleen whales, the huge manta rays eat some of the ocean’s smallest inhabitants – plankton. The planktonic organisms in the form of copepods, the larvae of corals and anemones, diatoms, dinoflagellates, and decapod krill swarm earth’s oceans in uncountable numbers. The phytoplanktonic organisms are attracted to artificial light just as they are to sunlight. Thus step one involved one of the crewmen placing a milk crate with two spot-lights on the sea bottom. Next, a flotation device looking much like a surfboard was launched. Projecting downward from this float were more lights. Our artificial suns were in place. The movement of the plant-like plankton (the phytoplankton) toward the lights enticed the animal-like plankton (zooplankton) to follow in search of a meal. It was quite amazing really. The lights came on and an oceanic food chain materialized: light –> plant –> animal. And of course the animal that we hoped would represent the top of that food chain was the manta ray. Into the water we plunged and grasping the handles around the float we hovered, looked downward and eagerly awaited the arrival of the big fish at the top of this feeding pyramid.

Under the lights, the amassed hordes of plankton made it seem as if one were suspended in the midst of a snow storm. The phytoplankton buoyantly drifted, floating in the water, a blizzard of tiny photosynthetic machines. Occasionally, across one’s field of vision, there was the sudden transit of what seemed a miniature meteor. Each marked the mad dash of one of the tiny zooplanktontic animals as it raced to intercept its equally miniscule victim. Several meters below we could see the spotlights sitting on the sea floor, the “campfire” as it was called. And then quite abruptly giant, shadowy forms moved across the lights. As if materializing from the water molecules themselves, suddenly there were manta rays.

As we watched, the mantas coursed back and forth through the column of plankton which had formed above the lights. With their broad oval mouths agape, the rays passed gallon of water over their gills. The aforementioned gill rakers, acting as strainers, trapped the plankton which was then forced to the back of the mouth and gulped down. An exceedingly large manta may eat thirty pounds or more of plankton per day. The manta rays we saw below us took plankton primarily by a method called ram feeding. In this technique, the rays simply plow through a concentration of plankton using the inertia of their movement to intake large volumes of water and the food it contains. We hovered on the surface hopeful that one of the rays would soon find the plankton suspended just below our raft too.

We were not to be disappointed. As I gazed downward into the clear but dark waters, a giant mouth unexpectedly materialized. Straight up came the huge maw. On each side a cephalic fin curved downward and directed water into the mouth. This enormous mouth was propelled upward by the movements of the ray’s wings (pectoral fins) which spanned over six feet. Surging upward it came toward our float; I braced for what seemed an unavoidable impact. But, at the last second, the manta performed a stunningly precise loop within inches of our faces. This maneuver revealed its brilliant white belly which was etched by distinctive black blotches. These “fingerprints” allow identification of individual rays. Downward the ray now plunged into the pillar of plankton. At the bottom another perfect loop was executed and again the ray ascended toward us like some incoming cartilaginous missile. It was quite obvious that the six hundred pound ray was exquisitely aware of its surroundings, the location of its food source, and the curious onlookers looming above it. Mantas have the largest brain to body mass ratio of any fish and studies suggest that they possess self-awareness. How could it not be totally aware of its environment? As I watched the acrobatics of the ray which was soon joined by a comrade, adjectives tumbled from my unconscious. Graceful, powerful, agile, nimble, beautiful – all most appropriate but so exceptionally inadequate in the presence of this astounding creature.

All too soon our allotted time passed. As we prepared to leave our raft and return to the boat, we were favored by one last pass from another giant. As if to show off its skills as a swimmer and gymnast, the great fish made two amazingly close, looping approaches of 360 degrees. So near was its lustrous white abdomen that I would scarcely have had to extend my hand to touch. With great reluctance, I heeded our pre-dive instructions – hands off! Nevertheless, my desire to know the feel of the ray’s skin, its texture, the strength which rested beneath, and the urge to simply make contact with such an alien being was most powerful. What senses were at work there? What thoughts, perceptions, and integrations were going on in that big brain? What were the secrets it possessed concerning its watery world? How vexingly impenetrable were the mysteries of this close encounter of the third kind.

These questions, the very nearness of the ray, and its extreme strangeness evoked the memory of author Henry Beston’s wonderful insight into those beings who inhabit that galaxy we call the Animalia.

Said Beston, “For the animals shall not be measured by man. 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. They are not brethren, they are not underlings. They are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time . . .”

Do I expect too much when I dream that we may someday forge a peace with these “other nations”? Do I ask for the impossible when I hope this truce come soon and be of enduring length? Will we ever recognize the need for humans to become conservers rather than consumers of our world’s wondrous biodiversity?

Afloat in the immense cosmic sea, our planet is a uniquely singular island of life. The manta ray exists nowhere else. Should my visions come to pass, perchance this majestic animal will yet endure. Freed from the gluttonous attention of the gill-seekers, the manta ray will forever swim the vast seas of its planetary home – our home, our Earth.

 Photo Credits:

Swimming manta – commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Manta_birostris#/media/File:Manta_birostris-Thailand3.jpg

Gill rakers in market – www.geographical.co.uk/nature/oceans/item/376-the-million-dollar-mantas

Yearly catches graphic -www.sharksavers.org/en/our-programs/manta-ray-of-hope

Manta and diver – Steve Dunleavy at Wikimedia Commons

Manta mouth – Wikimedia Commons

Dive boat & Hawaiian sunset by the author.






10. The Beach at Rantau Abang

A recent (and eagerly anticipated) visit to Hawaii has me thinking about sea turtles again. What an ancient group they are. For over 100 million years they have steadfastly rowed their way across the world’s oceans. This is a small taxonomic group with only a few living species and in our short time at the helm, we humans have managed to endanger most of them. My hopes for these fascinating animals were somewhat lifted while snorkeling in Hawaii where I saw more green turtles than I had ever before encountered. Cruising along the surface while relishing sightings of butterfly fish, Moorish idols, parrot fish, tangs and trigger fish I would find myself startled as a large honu suddenly loomed into my peripheral vision. There seemed to be a mutual curiosity between these hefty turtles (100 – 400 lbs.) and myself. What manner of creature now shared their waters they appeared to ponder? Satisfying their inquisitiveness, they would slowly swim away seemingly intent upon discovering what algae was on today’s menu. These chance meetings with green turtles were certainly delightful but they stirred memories of even more unforgettable encounters with sea turtles. To describe these, I must go back many years and speak of another species entirely.

In 1973 the east coast of peninsular Malaysia was pristine. From the state of Johore in the south to Kelantan in the north, there stretched over three hundred miles of undeveloped beach. Composed of golden, wheat-colored sand, the palm-lined coast was steadily caressed by the gentle surf of the South China Sea. To me it seemed a veritable paradise. As a biologist, one special part of that vast unspoiled beach made it seem particularly blissful. At a place called Rantau Abang, the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) came ashore to nest. I describe the turtle’s behavior as “to nest” but this is a pitiful, inadequate idiom. It is an admittedly unsatisfactory, incomplete catchphrase to use when attempting to describe one of the natural world’s most fascinating wildlife pageants.

Alas, in my sharing of this unique biological story, I must also grieve. For what I am about to describe for you is an account of a paradise that is lost. Now, should I desire to again experience the deep-seated instinct for nurturing and the expression of ancient rhythms which characterize the nesting of the leatherback sea turtles, I too must rely solely on the conjuring powers of the mind. By means of the enigmatic neural capacity we call memory I cling to the reminiscences of this primeval biological ritual as I would some irreplaceable treasure. Sadly, the spectacle of the leatherbacks nesting upon those golden sands is no more.

This is how I came to know a little of Dermochelys coriacea. In 1973, I had found myself newly removed from the temperate realm of Indiana and entrenched in the tropical environs of Malaysia. As a field biologist, the chance to experience Malaysia was the fulfillment of a dream. Here was a country not much larger (excluding the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak) than my Hoosier home. However this comparable geographic area harbored five times as many plant species, thrice the number of bird and mammal species, and six times the number of amphibian and reptiles as did my home state. What biologist would not be thrilled to work in such an environment?

Soon after arriving, a Malaysian colleague suggested that I should make a trip to the east coast. They guaranteed that I would find the sea turtle nesting area there to be of great interest. And so come June, wife Anne, daughter Michelle, and I piled into our diminutive Mitsubishi Colt and headed northeast toward the city of Kuantan. We soon found ourselves climbing into the low mountains which run down the Malay Peninsula’s middle. The slopes were covered by lowland tropical rainforest in many places. In others, the forest had been cleared and in these deforested areas we passed Malay kampongs, rubber plantations, and large tracts of oil palm plantings. From Kuantan, the capital of the state of Pahang, we motored north along the beautiful, mostly deserted coast into Terengganu state. Some 20 km. north of the town of Kuala Dungun, we arrived at a small collection of houses and food stalls – Rantau Abang.

Unsure at to the procedure involved in turtle watching, we made inquiries with the villagers and were directed to one of two small cottages that were available. These were rented to visitors wanting to see the leatherbacks come ashore. We booked one of these and transferred our few possessions inside. The house, if I may call it that, was tiny with dimensions of about 12 ft. X 12 ft. There was no bathroom or running water. In fact, the only furnishing was a large bed which occupied most of the cabin. This was a logical arrangement as one had to stay up most of the night in order to see the turtles. Most of the day was to be spent sleeping. Leatherback sea turtle watching was a third shift job.

Bathing was accomplished at an outside faucet near the cottage. Even for the three of us, who had experienced the whole gamut of intriguing third-world toilet possibilities, using the outside latrine was a frightening procedure. It was an outhouse of course built in the pit latrine style. This in itself wasn’t a particular bother. It was the covering of the toilet pit that prompted divinations of a potentially ghastly accident. Over the pit was arranged a mat of loosely assembled saplings two or three inches in diameter. I suppose, by loose definition, this covering could have been called a floor. But stepping upon this, as you can imagine, was akin to the feeling one might experience by walking on a trampoline. It really was quite terrifying to imagine these saplings suddenly giving way and allowing one to plunge into the sewage laden abyss just below. There was no proper toilet seat of course. Here the Asian custom of simply squatting was to be used.  The floor always held, but every trip to the privy was a terror-ridden experiment.

One might think that, rather than sleep the day away in bed, a few hours at the beach would be time better spent. If you were to express this notion, then I would conclude that you had never been to the lowlands of a country located near the equator. Here the sun is so intense that lounging about on the beach at midday is simply out of the question. During the day, the sand was so hot that it was virtually impossible to walk upon it barefooted. It would have been akin to walking barefoot across an asphalt parking lot at midday. So it was that we napped, lounged about, read, visited the local kedais for lunches of fried rice, and otherwise whiled away the time until we could make the much anticipated visit to the beach at night.

Naturally, the female turtles had to come ashore at night in order to lay their eggs. Not having the ability to precisely temperature regulate as do mammals, long term exposure to the sun could be lethal. Male leatherback sea turtles do not come ashore again once they leave the nest and rush down into the ocean. They spend this nesting time patrolling off the beach, out to sea, engaging in the two most basic survival behaviors of the animal kingdom – eating and mating.

In Malaysia, as is typical at the equator, there are roughly twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness. As sunset approached, we went for a late swim and then a leisurely dinner of rice and delicious curries of fish or chicken. As the evening grew ever darker, we tested our lights and at 10:30PM set off down the beach. It was wonderful to walk the shoreline at night. With the blazing sun now gone for a few hours, the temperature had fallen to a pleasant 75F. A moderate breeze flowed from the water bringing the rich, organic smell that even from a distance tells one that the sea is near. It is I suppose the odor of saltwater and fish, crab and clam, worm and whale all mixed into a delightful aromatic stew that speaks as clearly as if vocalized – here is life, abundant and rich.

Given the inky darkness, we wondered how difficult it might be to find a single female turtle far up on the beach. We needn’t have worried. Very soon we stumbled upon what one might have mistaken for the tracks of some giant piece of construction equipment. Emerging from the ocean and climbing up the beach, the deep symmetrical markings in the sand ascended up beyond the tide line. The form of the trail was a broad central, flattened drag mark about two feet wide. This was where the lower shell or plastron had dragged the sand. On each side of this were deep comma-shaped depressions in the sand a few feet in length. These marked the spots where the female leatherback’s forelimbs had dug into the sand as she thrust herself forward. The trenches were regularly spaced about a foot apart and lured us up the beach. We turned and followed them landward.

Playing our torches (we Americans call them flashlights) over the sand ahead of us, we soon could see the huge, dark form of the leatherback up ahead. I do not use the term huge lightly. Back home in Indiana, the largest turtle I had ever seen was a hefty common snapping turtle that weighed maybe thirty pounds. Now, lying before us upon the sand was a sea turtle that weighed in at over six hundred pounds. Her size was simply astounding. Leatherbacks may reach a length of over six feet, grow to well over one thousand pounds, and have a front flipper span of eight feet. They are the largest living turtle species in the world. Examining her more closely, the unique design of her carapace was revealed. The most distinctive feature of this dorsal shell was how dissimilar it was to any turtle I had seen before. Instead of a surface comprised of large adjoining scales, the back was a smooth almost blackish color. Rather than the hard, bone-like feel imparted by a typical turtle, the leatherback’s carapace appeared to be made of dense rubber. The “shell’s” texture and density looked very much like that of a hockey puck or the rubber tread of a heavy truck tire. The carapace was marked with scattered light blotches and several longitudinal ridges ran its length. Suspended from the old female’s eyes were large, mucus-like blobs which looked very much like enormous, thick tears. These kept her eyes from drying while she was out of the water. The tears also helped wash away any sand accidentally flipped into her eyes as she ascended the beach. To me, with the human tendency to anthropomorphize, the tears looked like visible emblems of the struggle she was facing in pulling her enormous mass up the beach. Without the buoying effect of the water and with her adaptations for life in the sea, the trip onto land was a taxing one.

Fortunately, we had found this female just in time. As we stood admiring her remarkable beauty of form she began to dig. Using her paddle-like hind flippers much as we would use our hands, she removed scoop after scoop of sand. After about fifteen minutes of digging the nest cavity was complete. It was a vertical hole in the sand perhaps a foot in diameter and three feet deep. The hole looked remarkably as though someone had dug it with a set of posthole diggers. It appeared perfectly round in cross-section and equally faultless in the smoothness of the walls and their verticality. Now she began to lay. One after another her large spherical eggs, about the size of snooker balls, dropped into the hole in the sand. The eggs weren’t broken by this fall because a reptile egg shell is not hard, brittle, or fragile like that of a bird. Rather the shell of reptile eggs is flexible and feels rather like thick

parchment paper. Thus the fall to the lowermost end of the nest chamber resulted not in a cracking sound but an audible, deep thud when an egg reached bottom. Watching several females nest over a period of days, we found the typical number of eggs laid ranged from fifty-five to sixty.

Having completed her laying, the turtle now began to fill the nest with sand. Again using quite hand-like movements of her pelvic flippers, she picked up portions of sand and placed them back into the nest hole. Periodically, she tamped these with her hind limbs to pack the sand. Having filled the nest hole, one might suppose that the mother would return directly to the water. This was not so. There were predators on the beach and they needed to be thwarted. In this part of the world, a chief threat came from large monitor lizards. They relished nothing more than discovering a leatherback nest and devouring all the eggs. In different parts of the world, sea turtle nests are attacked by a variety of other animals including raccoons, coatis, and dogs.

Because of the danger of predators the female turtle began her set routine of nest-hiding behavior. She worked onward with unwavering instinct. Dragging herself a few feet from the nest, she paused and began to make large, violent backward sweeps with her flippers. The sand was thrown rearward with terrific force over the site of the nest hole. Standing in the path of the flying sand, one felt as though a sand-blasting machine was being directed at one’s legs. After several strokes the female would crawl to a different side of the nest and repeat the sand throwing performance. This behavior was repeated another time or two and, when she had finished, the nest site was obliterated. It was as though one had taken a huge broom and thoroughly swept the area. No sign of the nest by which a predator might locate its precious contents remained. Having completed her work, the female now retraced her path to the sea. With ponderous movements of the flippers, she hoisted the front of her body off the sand and dragged herself down the sloping beach and into the surf. Most of the females repeated this trek onto the nesting beach and back to the sea several times during the nesting season.

Of course there was one predator who was not deterred by the leatherback’s elaborate nest hiding activities. The greatest threat of all to these sea turtle nests was human. Knowing when and to where the turtles would return, people were waiting. Finding an ovulating turtle, they simply confiscated each egg as it was laid. We found it terribly dismaying to watch a local villager methodically take every egg being produced by an ancient matriarch and drop it into their bucket. Here were half a hundred leatherbacks that would never taste the brine of the South China Sea. Neither was it difficult to imagine the impact on the species resulting from a large number of villagers plundering nests in this manner. Knowing that a nest was thus emptied, we would occasionally watch in deep anguish as a female turtle spent a half hour methodically hiding eggs which no longer existed.

For those eggs that did remain untouched, a period of development was now entered upon. It would be nearly two months before the young turtles were to emerge. The temperature at which the leatherback eggs develop is quite critical. Nest temperatures in the mid-eighties produce a mix of both male and female young. Higher temperatures result in the development of females while lower temperatures lead to the production of males. Incidentally, scientists today are reporting certain sea turtle populations which are highly skewed toward females. Global warming with its attendant increase in beach sand temperature is the suspected culprit; yet another threat to these already endangered animals.

At Rantau Abang, in the 1970’s, there was a government run hatchery of a

primitive sort. It consisted of a fenced-in area of about four thousand square feet. There was a small hut for storage and shade used by the old Malay fellow who tended the nursery. Within the enclosure we saw row after row of hardware cloth cylinders protruding from the sand. Each one contained the eggs taken from a turtle nest on a designated stretch of the beach. Outside this chosen area, turtle eggs were fair game and the locals consumed most of them. Each nest was marked by an identification number, the date the eggs were laid, and the number of eggs buried there. It was quite delightful to arrive at the hatchery early in the morning and see the dozens of little, three inch long leatherbacks which had hatched during the wee hours. They scrambled over one another and charged the walls of their enclosure in a frantic, instinctive attempt to reach the sea. Soon the old attendant would arrive with his red plastic bucket. Placing the agitated baby turtles in this, he would plod down to the edge of the surf and drop them into the water. They looked far too tiny to be venturing off on their own into the world’s largest ocean. It was better not to imagine the menagerie of enemies they faced out there. With sea birds, sharks, and large voracious fish on the lookout for an easy meal, the future of the baby turtles was rife with hazards. In fact, it is estimated that only about one in a thousand of these little hatchlings ever returns to its place of birth, one tenth of one percent; not very good survival odds. For those that do endure, a great migration was in store. Leaving the shores of Malaysia, the turtles would strike out for the far reaches of the eastern Pacific. Ranging far out into the open ocean before they turned westward once again, these leatherbacks would swim thousands of miles before yet again reaching these tropical shores.


Anne, Michelle, and I came away from Rantau Abang feeling privileged by our opportunity to have witnessed one of the earth’s greatest wildlife spectacles. We also carried away with us a gnawing dread that the leatherback’s future was uncertain. We hoped, perhaps even believed, in the optimistic manner of youth that more government protection of the turtles would soon be forthcoming. A mile of protected beach upon this vast coast was an absurdity. Surely the eating of the turtle’s eggs by villagers would be seen as unsustainable. We thought the residents themselves would most certainly realize that the nesting of the turtles produced, for them, the golden eggs of tourism. No turtles. No tourists. No tourists. No money. It all seemed so simple. But, as I said, we were young and unwise. We had underestimated the depths to which human greediness and thoughtlessness can progress.

Nearly all the world’s sea turtle species are now considered endangered. It pains me to think of the vast geologic history of these animals and their now perilous status among earth’s fauna. Here we have a group of animals whose ancestors swam with the plesiosaurs and nested on beaches trod upon by the dinosaurs. For over a hundred million years they withstood the ravages of climate change, predators, disease, and ocean hazard. Now, in just a few decades, these amazing reptiles find their kind decimated by the carelessness, avarice, and callousness of the human species. We have eaten their eggs and flesh. We have ground their bone into fertilizer. We have converted their skin and shells into trinkets. Their nesting beaches have been appropriated by condominiums and high-rise apartments. Our light pollution, glaring upon roadways and parking lots, is mistaken for starlight on water and lures hatchlings to their deaths. Many sea turtles are entrapped and drowned in fishing nets. For leatherbacks, plastic bags floating in the water look just like their favorite food – jellyfishes. They cannot digest plastic. It often seems to me that we are Hell-bent on destroying an entire subgroup of reptiles with nary a regretful look back.

I have not been back to Rantau Abang in nearly forty years. During all this time, I have found myself periodically dreaming of a return to those beautiful tropical shores. I imagined that perhaps my grandchildren might accompany me. What a wondrous thing it would be, I daydreamed, to gaze upon their awestricken faces as they stood next to a nesting female ten times their size. But I now know that this will not happen. As I told you, this is a story of paradise lost. In the 1950’s, ten thousand leatherbacks nested on the east coast of Malaysia. Six thousand nests were reported in the early 1970’s when we were there. By the year 2000, less than ten nests were completed at Rantau Abang. In two decades the number of nesting turtles declined by 90%. Recently, in verification of my ominous premonitions, I read a commentary announcing that researchers now believe populations of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle may be lost in the next two decades. Malaysian populations, the article declared, are already extinct. And now, so are my dreams.

A Postscript:

The New Straits Times (an English-language newspaper published in Malaysia) in an article dated September 11, 2017 announced that, for the first time since 2010, a leatherback sea turtle had returned to nest at Rantau Abang. It was the first nesting in seven years. Does a thin thread of hope still exist or are we simply hearing the last whimpers of a dying species?


9. Ever Thought Much About Ants?

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, . . .”

Proverbs 6:6

I have. And for some reason they’ve been on my mind quite a lot recently. Not sure why. I’ve got a suspicion that it has something to do with the fact that lately I’ve been experiencing one of my periodic bouts of homesick-longing for a dose of tropical rainforest – the most diverse, species-rich terrestrial ecosystem on earth.  And, of course, one cannot visit there without encountering ants.  As a biologist, when I think of ants, I tend not to ponder them as bothersome pests intent upon ruining our picnic. Instead I see them as imminently fascinating, complex social insects, and one of the most biologically successful groups of animals on the face of the planet.

Let me first explain what I mean by biological success. Success in this sense means something quite different than the manner in which the term is used in everyday parlance. After all, ants don’t seek wealth, political power, or social status. These seem to be common standards for measuring success among us humans. No, when I speak of biological success, I am using an entirely different set of criteria. For example, one way we measure biological success is by the number of species which have evolved within a particular group over time. Among the ant fraternity, there are over ten thousand species known with more yet to be discovered most likely. For purposes of comparison, there are only two species of pandas in the world. So, by this standard, we would have to say they are less biologically successful than ants. I suppose some might argue that dinosaurs would be the best example of an unsuccessful group. After all, they are extinct. But then we would have to decide how we were going to deliberate the fact that they were the dominant form of vertebrate life on earth for over one hundred million years. And, of course, there is the intriguing issue of the modern-day existence of some of them in the form of birds to be considered as well. Alas, all this would but complicate our consideration of biological success. Perhaps another time.

A second measure of biological success is the number of individuals within a particular group. By this criterion pandas would again be considered less successful than ants. There are some one thousand giant pandas and ten thousand red pandas remaining in the wild. Ants, on the other hand, have world-wide numbers estimated to be as high as fifteen quadrillion individuals (a one followed by fifteen zeros).

How long a group of organisms has been around (geologic distribution) is another measure of biological success. Ants show up in the fossil record around one hundred million years ago, a thousand times longer than modern man has been here. So, score one more for the ants.

And then there is geographical distribution to consider. How many different places on earth are home to the group in question? Because of our ability to manipulate environments, humans are wildly biologically successful by this measure. But the ants don’t do badly by this benchmark. Ants of one sort or another occur naturally everywhere on earth except for the planet’s very coldest regions. Thus, by all standards, they are exceedingly successful animals. This is especially true in the tropics.

And this brings me back to my recollections regarding tropical rainforests and ants. The biological success of the pismire clan is a phenomenon to consider, but even more captivating are the unbelievably complex behaviors and ecological relationships which have evolved among tropical ants. In regards to further contemplations of fascinating behaviors and social organization among tropical ants, there are so many nominees that it is difficult for me to choose any one. Army ants come to mind immediately. My first recollection of learning about army ants was via the 1954 movie The Naked Jungle starring Charlton Heston. As an impressionable eight year-old, I was terribly captivated by an ant army that could lay waste to an entire rainforest as though a phalanx of bulldozers had passed over. Equally shocking was their ability to quickly devour an inattentive human like so much spilled sugar. Many years later, I was to gain a more realistic knowledge of army ant behavior but nevertheless still find them fascinating.

There is a wealth of fascinating behavior to be considered when army ants are the subject. But there is another ant in the Neotropics which, in many ways, fascinated me even more upon my first encounter.

May I introduce Paraponeura  clavata, the bullet ant, also known as the conga or giant hunting ant. The first time I saw one of these clambering up the trunk of a nearby tree I was stunned by its size. Back in Indiana the largest ant I usually ran into was the carpenter ant. A big one might approach a half inch in total length. The bullet ant I saw busily foraging on the tree bark was three times that size. Coal black with a wicked looking set of stout mandibles, it was the first ant I had ever encountered that fairly screamed – don’t touch me! Paraponeura also packs a mighty wallop in the form of a venom injecting stinger at the tip of its abdomen. The intense pain of this wound persists for many hours. It is a pain said to be comparable to being shot, thus the name bullet ant. An entomologist by the name of Justin Schmidt has actually developed a scale for ranking the pain caused by the stings of various hymenopterans (ants, bee, and wasps). One must admire both his dedication to science and gallantry in developing his index of pain. Admittedly the degree to which pain is felt is somewhat subjective and, for those allergic to insect stings, any encounter can be life threatening. But be this as it may, Schmidt ranks the bullet ant numero uno when it comes to discomfort. On his pain scale of 1-4, it is a 4+. Schmidt described the sting of a single bullet ant as pain which was “pure, intense, brilliant, agonizing, and long lasting”. He reckoned the intensity of the sting to be several dozen times that of a common paper wasp.

In his book Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America, biologist Adrian Forsyth described an encounter with a bullet ant while in Ecuador. The ant dropped down the collar of his shirt and rapidly delivered four powerful stings in his neck and shoulder. He described the result as feeling “as if a red hot spike had been driven in. After an hour of burning, blinding pain,” Forsyth reported that he was left  with “a sore back and lymph nodes in my armpit that were so swollen that I could not move my arm without pain for the next two days.” Yes indeed, the bullet ant is quite an intimidating fellow.

On my first visit to Peru, I avoided any run-ins with this intimidating creature. The same was true for my next three trips to the Peruvian Amazon. On my fifth trip, my luck ran out. It was a night walk upon the ACTS canopy walkway that led to my encounter. As a matter of habit, I always watch where I am putting my hands when in the rainforest. Aside from bullet ants, there are thorny plants, scorpions, wandering spiders, and eyelash vipers that need avoiding.  Upon the walkway at night, while trying to traverse the swaying, bouncing, walk-boards maintaining one’s balance becomes a significant challenge. On my most recent trip (2019), I found myself suddenly totally off balance and swaying to one side. Reflexively grabbing a supporting walkway cable, I abruptly felt Schmidt’s “pure, intense” pain. I had inadvertently placed my hand upon a foraging bullet ant. An hour or so later I had returned to the lodge. By then my hand had begun to swell and the pain had migrated from the afflicted finger into the rest of my hand. Gradually the pain began to spread up my arm eventually reaching to my elbow and then upper arm. For over four hours I gritted my teeth as a pain that felt like red wasp X10 throbbed within my left hand and arm. As I write, some three months later, I can still look upon my left, middle finger and see the evidence of the attack. On the underside of my finger tip are the two telltale marks made by the ant’s mandibles as it seized hold. These are adjoined by the mark left by the stinger which the ant had so quickly and deftly inserted. Rest assured; this is a rainforest experience that will remain with me always.

Although I cannot speak from direct observation, I have heard tell of a most unusual human-bullet ant interaction. There exists a tribe in the Brazilian Amazon known as the Sateré-Mawé.  The status of warrior is highly valued among these people. As in other similar cultures, young men must endure an initiation ritual to achieve this esteemed standing and here is where the bullet ant enters the picture Hundreds of Paraponeura are collected for the ceremony (there are multiple videos of this rite at youtube.com). Using a naturally occurring botanical sedative, the ants are drugged into a comatose state. The now placid bullet ants are then inserted, stinger first, into a pair

of gloves made of woven plant fibers. One observer has compared them to large oven mitts. The young male initiate then has these extraordinarily uncomfortable mittens placed over his hands. Of course by now the bullet ants have awakened from their lethargic state and are very much displeased to find themselves entrapped in the gloves. They express this discontent by delivering dozens upon dozens of stings to the hands of the aspiring warrior. One might imagine that enduring this torment for a matter of seconds would be quite sufficient. But this is not so. The inductee is expected to withstand the agony of the bullet ant stings for ten minutes and must do so without screaming in anguished pain. Oh, there is another requirement for this ceremony. The young warrior candidate must, over a period of time, repeat this rite an additional nineteen times (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mawé_people).  Having endured the sting of this ant once, I cannot imagine the agony these young initiates must bear.

All these things considered, I would rank the bullet ant as one of the most fascinating of the tropical rainforest ants. But remember, should you have the opportunity to travel to the Neotropics yourself, be exceedingly careful where you place your hands. And if you find yourself in Sateré-Mawé country I would think twice about an invitation to join their warrior clan.

There are even more ant candidates of interest, but if I must choose one group of ants to share with you this time, it would have to be the leafcutter ants. In fact, if asked to choose a non-human animal with the most complex social organization on earth, I would be hard pressed to find a better example than the leafcutter ants. They are even more astounding when we also consider the nearly unfathomable intricacy of the mutualistic relationship they have formed with another organism in their environment – a type of fungus.

To begin, we must remember that leafcutter ants are social insects. Such insects (most bees, wasps, other ants, and termites too) live in colonies. Within these colonies, the jobs of scouting for and collecting food, defending against enemies, nest building, reproduction, and myriad other tasks are divided among members of the colony specialized for each role. Typically, a particular body anatomy is associated with such specialization. This allows the job to be done with utmost efficiency. Such division of labor bears an uncanny resemblance to the manner in which the jobs within human society are divvied up. The specialized body forms/occupations within a colony of social insects are referred to as castes.

Among leafcutter ants, the evolution of castes has been taken to extremes with as many as six different ones being recognized. The largest caste member is the lone queen who measures about 20 mm in length. Her primary job is to lay the eggs from which all other colony members are derived. Males form another caste but they are short-lived and their only function is to mate with the queen. Shortly after doing so they die, so most colonies are absent of males for long stretches of time. The remaining members of the leafcutter ant colony belong to the worker caste of sterile females which may number four or five million. The leafcutter worker caste is further subdivided based upon size into minims, minors, media, and majors. Each of these performs some specific job or jobs within the colony. Minims (2 mm) work inside the nest, tending larvae for example. These nests, by the way, can be huge. I once saw a leafcutter nest (they look something like an expanse of tilled soil) in the Manu region of Peru which was forty feet in diameter. Such a nest can go downward into the ground thirty or forty feet and may contain hundreds of interconnected subterranean chambers. Minors protect their foraging sisters and help defend the nest from enemies. Members of the media caste (10 mm) locate food, cut leaves, and transport them back to the nest. The major caste members are large (15-20 mm) with massive heads which house powerful muscles for operating their huge mandibles. These ants are often simply referred to as soldiers and their primary job is defending the colony against attack.

This extreme division of labor is wonderfully interesting in its own right, but now on to some of the even more amazing details in the life of a leafcutter ant society. To begin with, leafcutters do not indiscriminately harvest leaves from just any species of plant. They are selective and may travel far from their nest to obtain the leaves of a particular kind of plant. In one study, only about thirty-one percent of the available plants were utilized by the ants. The underlying reason for this is connected with the most remarkable aspect of leafcutter behavior. They avoid certain plants not because of the danger they might pose should the ants eat the leaves themselves. In fact, the leaves they harvest are not for their own consumption. Instead the leaves are gathered to serve as fodder for the special fungus that the ants grow within their subterranean nests. It is this fungus that is their primary food. We might well consider leafcutter ants to be earth’s first farmers!

Plants have, over time, evolved chemical defenses against the animals which try to eat them. The variety of defensive chemicals produced is impressive and includes cardiac and cyanogenic glycosides, calcium oxalate, caffeine, nicotine, and terpenoids.  Some of these chemicals cause a bad taste, some burn the mouth, others may cause nausea, and certain others may attack an animal’s nervous or cardiovascular system. Unsurprisingly, some plants produce chemicals which are toxic to the fungus that is grown by the ants (the aforementioned terpenoids for example). Such plants are identified and studiously avoided by the ants lest they bring back toxic leaves which would decimate their primary food source – the fungus garden.

As noted, the medias search for and locate leaves, cut small circular pieces from them, and transport these pieces back to the nest. When standing, looking down upon a column of foraging leafcutter ants I have been reminded of the view of an automobile freeway from a traffic helicopter. Thousands of determined travelers are seen marching back to the nest with their treasured piece of leaf, stem, or flower petal. In the opposite lanes, empty-jawed workers trek steadfastly away from the nest on their return trip to the leaf source.  The leaves they seek may be located in a tall forest tree and involve a considerable climb to reach. Ascending into a one hundred feet tall tree, a worker would be climbing to a height over three thousand times its own body length. This is the equivalent of a six feet tall human climbing a mountain over three miles high to reach a food source. If this human weighed one hundred and eighty pounds they would then, to match the feat of strength of a leafcutter worker, have to carry back down a weight of around one and a half tons. And this climbing, descending, and carrying would have to be done repetitively. The amount of leaf material collected by a colony is impressive as well. A study quoted in John Kricher’s excellent introduction to tropical Central and South America – A Neotropical Companion – found that leafcutter ants consume three-tenths of a ton of foliage per hectare each year.  Thus, for example, in an area the size of La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica (3900 acres) we would expect these ants to consume 468 tons of vegetation per year. Kricher notes that such herbivorous feeding is equivalent to the combined efforts of all the vertebrates in a particular area of forest.

The foraging leafcutter ants make very distinct, cleared trails over which they transport their leaf bits. Media workers build and maintain these trails. Their paths remind me of little, miniature versions of well-trodden human footpaths. As media workers age, they are assigned the garbage detail and work to remove dead ant bodies, bits of dead fungus, and decomposing leaf bits. These waste materials are hazardous to the colony and are dumped outside the nest, above ground in a waste midden.

Minor workers perform one of the most mind-bendingly, fascinating jobs in the entire colony. Leafcutter ants, like all animals, have their enemies. One of the most crafty is a type of fly called a phorid. These flies parasitize leafcutter ants. A favorite ploy of the phorids is to attack a worker who is busy transporting a bit of leaf. Thus employed, the worker is unable to mount an effective defense against the fly. The phorid swoops down and lays an egg on the leafcutter worker’s head. As you may guess, the egg then hatches into a larva that proceeds to burrow into the ant and begin feeding resulting in the ant’s death. To prevent this ghastly chain of events, minors often ride on the body of a foraging worker or on the leaf which it is carrying. By riding shotgun, they can fend off the attack of a phorid fly intent on parasitizing the hapless worker. (Note the smaller ants riding on the leaf pieces in the photo below.)

Back at the nest, pieces of leaf material are handed off to the smaller minim workers and here begins a chain of events of extraordinary behavioral and biochemical complexity. The surfaces of the leaf particles are first cleaned by the minims to remove any bacteria that might infiltrate and attack the fungus garden. Minims then proceed to chew the leaves into a macerated pulp onto which they introduce the fungus which will constitute their garden. Studies have shown that this fungus will not grow properly without the presence of the ants. Grown on a protein medium alone, the fungus will not survive. Researcher Michael Martin studied the biochemistry of the ant-fungus relationship and found that the ants, as they prepare the leaf bits, release a tiny drop of their own rectal fluid onto the pieces. This fluid, he found, contains a mixture of organic compounds including all the amino acids needed for synthesizing proteins. Since the fungus is unable to break down large protein molecules itself, it relies on the amino acids in the ant rectal fluid to be able to build the protein molecules used for constructing its own mycelial body.

There is one final twist, a most coherent end-game, to all this. We might ask why the ants don’t just eat the leaves and bypass the laborious, complicated process of maintaining their fungus garden. The final, ultimate benefit they receive from pursuing this arduous relationship is as follows. Cellulose is a primary structural component of plants, it is one of the most abundant organic compounds in nature (there are lots of plants in the rainforest!). Cellulose is a polysaccharide i.e. a starch. Starches are composed of long chains of glucose molecules. Glucose is analogous to the gasoline for our automobiles; it is the basic cellular fuel for most living things. The ants need this fuel but they do not produce the cellulose digesting enzyme required, i.e. they cannot digest the leaves. Their fungal symbionts do produce cellulase enzymes. The fungus in the ant’s garden digests the cellulose in the leaves into sugars. These sugars are then assimilated into the corpus of the fungus. Thus by eating the fungus, the leafcutter ants ultimately access much of the glucose energy stored in the many tons of leaves they harvest in a year’s time – the whole point of this unbelievably complex chain of behavioral and biochemical events.

Thus there is total interdependence between the leafcutter ants and the fungus in regards to the survival of each. This is why their relationship is referred to as mutualism – a type of symbiosis beneficial to both organisms. And, in this case, the symbiosis is not only mutually astounding ecological relationship beneficial but obligatory. They cannot survive without one another.

I hope your mind has been suitably boggled by the bizarre world of the leafcutter ant. It is certainly so with mine.

And now finally, we must consider this.

The only person to see a new species of orchid may be the bulldozer operator who is clearing the only two or three acres of rainforest land in the world where this species occurs.


The small, hilltop patch of irregular canopy (right center) is rainforest. Much of it has been displaced by the regular rows of oil palm plantation. The more uniform tree canopy profile is composed of rubber tree plantation.

Biologists believe that the leafcutter ant/fungus association is at least fifty million years old. Can you comprehend that span of time? Admittedly, it is difficult to conceive of organisms living cooperatively for a period ten thousand times the length of recorded human history. It is equally difficult to simply grasp that stupendous expanse of deep time. Can you envision the intricate goings on within the leafcutter colony – the pheromonal exchange of information between queen and caste members, the complex division of labor within the worker caste, the intricate interplay of enzymes, amino acids, and proteins which drive the survival of ant and fungus? What a wondrous natural phenomenon we experience when we consider the leafcutter ant.

How many other wonders of equally astounding complexity exist in the tropical rainforests of the world? No other terrestrial ecosystem exists which equals the diversity of species found here. Even now, in the 21st Century, the tropical rainforests have been incompletely studied. And yet some twenty million acres of tropical rainforest (thirty-one thousand square miles) are destroyed by humans each year. This is a land area equivalent in size to the state of South Carolina. I find it difficult to comprehend how much life must exist in 31,000 mi2 of tropical rainforest.

I read such statistics with dismay(rainforests.mongabay.com/facts/rainforest-facts.html). I think of the sophisticated tapestry that is leafcutter ant society and wonder, what other marvels of the natural world are we losing? How many species of organisms have disappeared without our ever having been aware of them? What intricacies of behavior, biochemistry, and symbiosis have been lost while humanity remains blissfully ignorant? Many of our medicines are derived from the complex defensive chemicals produced by plants. What potential sources of antibiotics, analgesics, and anesthetics have been lost while we remain unaware that they even existed? By what ethical imperative do we justify the destruction of an ecosystem which represents the crown jewel of the Creation? What imperious conceit would allow us to extinguish, with barely a second thought, a biological interdependence fifty thousand millennia in the making? Will my great-great-grandchildren also be able one day to walk within a tropical rainforest? Will they have the chance to experience for themselves the bullet ant’s frightening demeanor? Will they be given, as I have, the opportunity to gaze in rapt wonderment upon the extraordinary march of the leafcutter ants?


Photo credits:

Fungus colony – Alex Wild @ Wikimedia Commons

Leafcutter Ant – Wikimedia Commons

Leafcutter Ant nest illustration – Erich Hoyt 1996

Leafcutter Ant castes – Wikimedia Commons

Satere’-Mawe’ initiation – Bruno Kelly at psu.edu

All others by the author.




8. A Sugar Creek Memoir

The lovely little stream christened Sugar Creek arises near the border of Clinton and Tipton Counties up in central Indiana. It then flows to the southwest for ninety miles, mostly at a leisurely clip with two or three miles an hour being the norm. Along the way there are short, faster stretches of white water that pass for rapids here in Indiana. I suppose someone who cut their kayaking-teeth on western streams would be less impressed and more likely to call them riffles. But they are sufficient to make the stream a popular one for canoeists and kayakers. As the stream follows its meandering path, a watershed of just over 800 square miles is drained.  All this runoff from farmland and forest eventually joins the Wabash River just north of the little burg of Montezuma.

Sugar Creek has done some beautiful work in the ten thousand years since Indiana’s encounter with the Wisconsin ice sheet. The sandstone bluffs along its course testify to the steady, patient, erosive power of water. In places, the stream has cut through fossil-bearing strata of high quality. Much of this bedrock represents sediments from the bottom of an ancient inland sea.  I once saw a wonderfully detailed (and expensive) slab of Indiana sandstone loaded with marine crinoid fossils (folks around here often call them Indian beads) in a shop in Jackson, Wyoming. Noting its source, I was pleasantly surprised to see Crawfordsville, Indiana listed.

I’ve made a few trips down Sugar Creek by canoe, but it’s been awhile; a good long while now that I think about it. Perhaps being 72 years old has something to do with this recent dearth of Sugar Creek canoeing. I’ll admit that sitting in the same position on an aluminum seat for several hours has lost much of its charm. Being a little less flexible in the joints doesn’t improve one’s canoeing skills either. Additionally, there is that pesky issue of possessing a sense of balance that now seems to unpredictably hit “pause” of its own volition

But, I certainly wouldn’t think of telling you not to do a float on Sugar Creek some summer. The stream still has much to offer. Usually low and in no particular hurry in midsummer (in fact you might do some portaging), Sugar Creek winds its way through both Shades and Turkey Run state parks, two of the state’s last natural gemstones. Indiana’s first nature preserve, Pine Hills, also lies along Sugar Creek. The huge sycamores, one of Indiana’s largest trees, lining the stream are a sight to behold. Beyond the sycamores, and cloaking the slopes above the creek, stand rich forests of oak, maple, and hickory. The numerous sand and gravel bars are inhabited by soft-shelled turtles. Espying your approach, they race down the sand bar and into the water at a speed that makes a lie of the old saw about turtles moving in slow motion. Great blue herons prowl the shoreline. Their stately, patient stalking of prey is a reminder for us to be persistent, stick with a task and we will be rewarded. Turkey vultures in decorous, soaring flight can be seen passing overhead in the narrow aperture betwixt the forested canopies of the left and right banks. Keep a wary eye lest your presence surprises them and a cascade of defensive vomit comes plummeting from on high. Pileated woodpeckers traverse the stream in their determined search for a delicious meal of carpenter ants or wood-boring beetle larvae. Belted kingfishers stand guard upon dead snags, ready to plunge dive for shiners or young suckers. Today there is a good chance of seeing a bald eagle. Back in my canoeing days, seeing a bald eagle was a very rare event. They were still recovering from the ravages of DDT. Yes, there is much to see and appreciate along Sugar Creek.

Speaking for myself, it isn’t so much the physical challenge that has kept me away all these years. The problem is that I am old enough to recall another era on the stream; one that is gone now and unlikely to return. Five decades ago – yes, I guess it really has been that long – one could float Sugar Creek from Crawfordsville down to Jackson Bridge in Parke County and still get a sense of 19th century Indiana. One could capture the sensation of adventure engendered by being a pioneer, a discoverer, an explorer. Of course the reason for the distinct difference between then and now was the lack of other people on the water. Just west of Crawfordsville itself one was prone to see cabins and fish-camps, but their numbers soon diminished and the stream was mostly deserted. On one of my trips back in the sixties, we encountered only two other canoes during two days of travel. Most of the time It took little effort to be transported back in history and to imagine that you were the only one on the stream altogether. Perhaps it is inevitable that all this has changed now. Canoes, with their novice pilots and noisy passengers are deposited by the busload at the drop-off points. The sense of solitude and independence that was so much a part of the Sugar Creek experience is gone for good. No amount of effort will allow one to imagine being alone with the stream or engaged in your own musings while drifting along within a veritable flotilla.

Upon reflection, perhaps I am being selfish. After all, one could argue that Sugar Creek is a natural resource that should be available to all who seek to enjoy its scenery and biodiversity.  And admittedly the state has been unusually progressive in trying to protect this lovely piece of Indiana natural history. In 2010, a partnership of conservations groups, state government, and landowners launched the Healthy Rivers initiative which is meant to protect over 40 000 acres of land along Sugar Creek and the Wabash River. From Shades State Park down to Fairbanks Landing Fish and Wildlife Area, over ninety miles of aquatic habitat and adjacent land is to be protected and conserved. It is a lofty and admirable goal in this age of economic growth, consumption at any cost, and political indifference (or is it hostility) toward our environments.

I admire the intent and labor put into the enactment of the Healthy Rivers Initiative. I must remind myself that, when I last floated Sugar Creek, there were five million people in Indiana. Now there are close to seven million. During this same period, the human population of the U.S increased by over one hundred and twenty million souls. Reason tells me that all these new citizens need a place to recreate. I cannot begrudge them this desire, this right, and perhaps someday I will again find myself upon the clear, turbulent waters of Sugar Creek. But I am daunted. Always lurking in my mind is the lament so common among those who have gained the boon of growing older, “If only it was like it was when I was young.”

And so today, when I think of Sugar Creek or encounter the stream from somewhere along its embankments, I automatically recall a certain, long-ago trip down the brook. This trip lies resting in my memory like a precious gem. Brought to the surface, this remembrance continues to constitute my vision of what Sugar Creek was and is.

It was my friend Jim with whom I shared the adventure in question.  Jim is gone now. I think about him often and his absence makes my world a lonelier and less interesting place. Jim was an artist whose bright mind roamed the gamut of human endeavors. Music, art itself, science, politics, literature and film; all these fell within his expansive sphere of interests. He could engage in an informed discourse on any of them. He was a man of mercurial temperament who suffered fools poorly. Jim had little tolerance for those who failed to meet the high standards of his broad-minded world view. He could be as explosive as a fumbled vial of nitroglycerine and was especially prone to direct his wrath toward inflexible, narrow minded religious dogma and its attendant intolerance. Politicians were another favored target of his wrath. Woe unto any public servants who traded in the goods which were anathema to Jim – hypocrisy, prejudices, disdain for the environment. His energetic, agile mind – which was prone to roam in unorthodox and inventive directions – was a constant stimulant prompting me in turn to seek, question, and consider. It was wonderfully entertaining to be around him.  Jim, in his later years, described himself as an Alchemical Artist. I had always perceived this ancient science as merely a search for the skill of transforming lead into gold, a narcissistic pathway to wealth. But Jim’s exploration and comprehension of alchemy ran much deeper. He described alchemy to me as “. . .  a complex and mysterious philosophy which involved a transformation process that sought spiritual renewal and an understanding of both the composition of the universe and how it worked.” A search for theology from a friend who decried organized religion? A quest in the realm of cosmology from one trained in art? Alchemy as the pursuit of spiritual and intellectual gold? These apparent contradictions made me even more aware of the depth of Jim’s interests, astuteness, and beliefs. In light of this, I was intrigued when I ran across author Edward Abbey’s reference to alchemy in describing a close friend of his own, the artist John De Puy . In reference to Du Puy’s brilliance, accompanied by a steady, purposeful intake of strong drink, Abbey said, “I suspected more than alcohol at work here. But the drug, as I would eventually understand, was not chemical but alchemical: the alkaloids of genius.” The alkaloids of genius were surely present in James Loney as well. What more can I say? Jim was the most interesting, thought-provoking person I have ever known. His was the irreplaceable friendship of a lifetime.

And so, one summer, we had decided that just the two of us would float Sugar Creek. Previous trips had, for the most part, found us drifting among other companions. But this time Jim and I wanted to sense the quiet solitude and the open book of natural history that Sugar Creek represented without the discordance of other voices, other interests, other motives.

So we put in alone and carefully took our time. For the most part, we simply let the creek do the work and relaxed as it carried us along. We were fortunate on this trip and did find our solitude. We shared the natural beauty offered along the stream as we passed beneath the towering sycamores and cottonwoods, caught fleeting glimpses of downy and red-bellied woodpeckers in the fringing forest, and anticipated what new sight would greet us around the next bend.

As we moved along we fished. Happily, Sugar Creek has maintained an impressive diversity of fishes within its waters. An impressive variety of smaller species reside there: spotfin shiner, stoneroller, redhorse, silverjaw minnow, emerald shiner, and the beautiful rainbow darter. Game fishes are present too. Catfish, bass, bluegill, and crappie swim the waters of Sugar Creek. The stream is considered by many to be the best fishing area for smallmouth bass in the state. Admittedly the fishing Jim and I did was accomplished in a casual sort of way. There were many other subjects of which to speak, other curiosities to consider. We made periodic casts but often simply let the night-crawlers on their harnesses troll along beside the canoe. It seems strange to me, after the passage of so many years, that the strike of the first fish remains so vivid in my memory. The deep pool cutting against the bank as the stream made its bend, the angle and intensity of the sunlight, the excited yells, and the agitated efforts we made to get the canoe turned and stopped, all are as fresh in my mind now as when I saw the tip of my rod whip toward the water’s surface. We did manage to get pulled onto the sandbar on the inside of the bend. We sat there and cast into the small, swift running pool (it couldn’t have been more than ten yards long) and time after time were rewarded. It seemed that every smallmouth bass and channel cat in this stretch of Sugar Creek had taken refuge in this one little spot. What a wonderful time we had.

It has puzzled me greatly through the years as to why this particular episode has stayed with me in such a lucid way. The number of fish caught wasn’t great, maybe a half dozen of each. The size of none challenged the state record book. As I have mulled this over, it has become obvious to me that it wasn’t really the number or the size of the fish that mattered at all. It was the opportunity to fish. The chance to be with a good friend, to share a rare jewel of a day, to match skill against companion and fish alike; these are the things that have implanted the trip so deeply in my mind.

I like to come back to this memory now and again. It serves to remind me that some of the most important events in one’s life may be composed of the simplest ingredients – the companionship of a friend or loved one; a warm midday sun upon the shoulders; the fecund smell of earth and water and a simple excuse to delight in a Creation that endlessly fills us with awe and enchantment.

I hope you too have that friend of long-standing with whom you can share the natural world. Should you indeed be fortunate enough to have that special fishing pal, mushroom hunting buddy, birding comrade, or hiking companion consider it a blessing.  Practice mindfulness. Be aware that you possess a prize of great value. Life is ephemeral. Deep, enduring friendships are rare treasures of immeasurable worth.

**********************************************************The Bald Eagle image is shown courtesy of James Romine.

Rainbow Darter image courtesy Iowa DNR: BioNet

Smallmouth Bass by Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


7. The Bronzed Tube-nosed Bat

One aspect of tropical rainforest biodiversity that makes it so exciting, at least for a biologist, is the possibility of happening upon rare species. Of course the ultimate prize is the discovery of a species of organism which is completely new to science. The very idea of laying eyes upon an organism that no other person has ever seen is enough to send any self-respecting biologist into paroxysms of delight. Of course there is a caveat, one must always acknowledge that the organism in question is likely well-known to the indigenous people who inhabit a given study area. Their eyes are phenomenally attuned to the natural world which surrounds them; quite expected since their survival often depends upon having an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna of their territory. Be that as it may, as scientists, the role of making a new species known to the world of academia is a significant one. In many cases, particularly if the new find happens to be a vertebrate, this will lead to awareness of the new species by the general public as well.

Even now, well into the 21st Century, the tropical rainforests of the world are incompletely known from a biological standpoint. Granted it is now rare that we find a new mammal or bird. But, on the other hand, many less glamorous organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and even insects still await discovery (my apologies to bacteriologists, mycologists, and entomologists).  As an example, a few years ago I met a group of middle school pupils who were taking part in a Jason Project excursion to northeastern Peru. Incredibly, during their field work, these students discovered a species of beetle that was previously unknown to science. Knowing whether or not one has a new species in hand requires expertise of course. Thus it is that one will find specialists in the taxonomy (identification and classification) of any particular group of organisms one wishes to choose. Some taxonomists go for the gold and tackle a group with charismatic star-power such as the dinosaurs. Others may, with forethought, choose a group of organisms in which taxonomic competition among biologists is less intense. Harvard entomology professor emeritus E.O. Wilson chose to become a myrmecologist (ant biologist) and in the process carved himself a niche within which he holds sway as the world’s acknowledged expert on this group. Some biologists will opt for an even more arcane group. This almost certainly guarantees them supremacy of expertise in their chosen area. For example, when I was in graduate school, one of the professors in our department was an expert on the taxonomy of psocids. You may rightly ask, what in the world is a psocid? Many psocids look like tiny flies. Others, being wingless, resemble lice. Technically speaking, they belong to a group of insects known as booklice. They are quite small, one or two millimeters in length, and feed on lichens and fungi. Psocids often perch on shrubby vegetation. This particular professor could regularly be seen wandering about the campus with the tools of his trade – a black umbrella, a stout club, and an aspirator. Upon approaching a shrub, he would open the umbrella, hold it upside down under the vegetation, and suddenly begin flailing the branches with his club as though possessed by the sudden onset of some sort of mania. This frantic and, to outward appearance, bizarre routine would be met with open-mouthed astonishment by passersby. It really was quite entertaining to watch him at work. Of course, he was collecting psocids. Pummeling the shrubbery would cause any psocids present to fall onto the black umbrella. Here, despite their tiny size, the whitish body color would make them readily apparent. The aspirator was essentially a test tube with a stopper in it. From the stopper protruded two tubes. One was a short glass piece which the prof placed in his mouth. The other was a longer plastic tube which was positioned next to a psocid perched on the umbrella. A gentle suction applied to the glass tube resulted in the psocid being vacuumed into the test tube. A very interesting operation it was and one which made me admire the entertaining eccentricity of many scientists even more.

Obviously then, collecting and naming new species of living things is not a common occupation. Try to think of the last time you asked someone what they did for a living and they replied, “Actually, I’m a taxonomist.” This, in reality, is a problem. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists some 20 000 species as currently in danger of extinction. Given the speed at which natural areas of the world are being lost to development, there simply aren’t enough trained taxonomists to catalog all the organisms which are likely disappearing.

Incidentally, today’s rate of biodiversity loss of is so great that many scientists believe that we are now in the midst of our planet’s sixth mass extinction episode. Because this rate of loss is so high, and we have too few taxonomists, we may not know the potential value of species that are disappearing. In some cases this importance may be entirely a question of ethics. Many, me included, believe that the wild organisms of our world have a basic entitlement to pursue their continued existence absent the threat of annihilation by humans. In other cases, the survival of organisms may have direct benefits to humans as sources of medicine, foods, or fibers. As an example, we should remember that nearly one-third of our pharmaceuticals are plant derived. Might it not be possible, in our wholesale clearing of tropical rainforests for example, that we extirpate a plant species with extreme efficacy in treating cancer or an animal whose venom might serve as a highly effective, non-addictive analgesic? Such a loss could occur without awareness on our part that such a valuable organism even existed in the first place? (*Do a Google search for the rosy periwinkle to appreciate the life-changing power of a plant-based pharmaceutical.)

But, despite these reasons for unease, let us return to more positive musings. The modest company of biological taxonomists active today ply their skill as best they can. For biologists working in the tropics, even those who aren’t technically specialists in taxonomy, the possibility of discovering rarities is always lurking. Like hitting a biological lottery, the rare species may unexpectedly turn up and grant the investigator a prize of great worth. Such was my experience while working as a vertebrate zoology lecturer at the University of Agriculture (now Universiti Putra) in Malaysia.

My colleague Phoon and I were teaching a course for our secondary education students at the University of Malaya’s field station at Ulu Gombak. The research station sat along the main trunk road which led from Kuala Lumpur, near the west coast, to the city of Kuantan lying hard by the South China Sea to the east. The facility was comprised of two buildings. One served as a laboratory where specimens collected during our forays into the rainforest could be identified, observed, and catalogued. The other building contained dormitories for the students, two small private rooms for staff, and a kitchen where the three meals students and staff took each day were prepared. In front of the dormitory, a small but well-manicured lawn sloped downward toward the nearby forest edge and the Sungei Gombak which flowed just inside the wall of trees. Although called a river, this stream was only a few yards across. I suppose a world-class long-jumper could have cleared it in a single leap. Nevertheless, the stream’s constant, muffled roar was a pleasant addition to the symphony of rainforest sounds falling steadily upon one’s ear. The stream was also a fruitful site should one want to search for caecilian larvae or foam-nesting tree frogs.

Across the front of the dormitory building ran a long, covered veranda. Tables and chairs for dining were arranged the length of this large balcony which stood a dozen feet above the aforementioned lawn. The porch was a wonderful place to sit and enjoy delicious curries of rice, fish, or chicken in company with the cheery Malay students. All the while we could gaze out onto the nearby mountains, their slopes cloaked with a thick covering of dipterocarp forest.   The superstars of this forest were the massive Shorea trees whose grayish- leaves caused them to stand out among the numberless greens of their brethren. Some of these Shorea were giants who towered over two-hundred feet above the forest floor. Occasionally a guttural call or a thrashing, leafy branch would alert us to the presence of a band of dusky or silvered leaf monkeys moving through the canopy. A flying lizard (Draco) might be seen soaring across the lawn its rapid, direct “flight” causing one to momentarily mistake it for a bird.  On more than one occasion, the morning was embellished by a flyover of one of the rainforests largest birds, the rhinoceros hornbill. Occasionally the flight would be announced by the magnificent bird’s ringing, honking call. At other times the hornbill might pass above us without voice, its presence announced only by the deep, far-carrying sound from the beats of its five feet long wingspan. They reminded me of the chugging of a slow moving steam locomotive. Breakfasts were often graced by the exotic, high-pitched whooping of white-handed gibbons or the deep, booming voice of siamangs issuing from the far hills as they performed their morning routine of establishing territorial boundaries and maintaining the unity of their groups. Looking back I recall a magical place, a kind of Eden where I found myself joyous simply to be alive, euphoric over my good fortune in being present in one of planet earth’s last, great wild places.

One afternoon, I was in the lab engaged in the identification of some of the insects the students had collected. My lab assistant, a chap by the name of Rajoo, came into the lab with a bat. He had found the bat, already dead, lying along the side of the road which ran nearby. The specimen was in prime condition. In the tropics this is a rare situation. A dead mammal quickly begins to decompose due to the high ambient temperature. They are also invariably set upon by ants which can destroy a carcass within minutes. Rajoo’s bat specimen must have met its demise very recently.

I didn’t recognize the bat’s species immediately although I did notice the odd structure of the nostrils. Instead of simple external openings to the nasal passages, these were like small cylinders with the nares at their ends. From this character, it was fairly obvious that the specimen belonged to a group known, logically enough, as the tube-nosed bats. I decided to go ahead and make a museum specimen of the bat. This simply involved removing the skin and placing it over an appropriately sized body made of cotton. The wings and legs were braced with small wires and then the specimen was left to dry. Such mounts, if protected from insect pests, can last for well over one-hundred years. The head was kept as well. The skull, cleaned of flesh by a colony of scavenging dermestid beetles, is often critical in identifying small mammas such as bats.

Back at the university in Serdang, I came into the office with my first priority being to try to determine what species of bat we actually had. Before preparing the skin I had taken the standard measurements used in bat identification. Total length was 40mm. The length of the forearm was 35mm. Ear length was 15mm and the bat’s weight was eight grams. The upper parts were dark brown and the uropatagium (the skin between the legs and tail) was clothed in bronze-ochraceous hair. There were two incisors in each upper jaw and five cheek teeth. Eight teeth were present in each lower jaw.

Now I began to compare my measurements and observations with the descriptive information provided in Lord Medway’s Wild Mammals of Malaya (Yes, an actual British Lord). At that time his book was the authoritative source of information on the mammals of Malaysia. Scanning through the tube-nosed bat descriptions, I found the closest match to be one with the common moniker of bronzed tube-nosed bat. It seemed pretty straight forward but, as I read the species description in Medway, I was startled. The text stated that not only was this bat known only from Malaysia, it was known from a single specimen taken in the neighboring state of Pahang. With rising pulse rate, I again ran through the measurements, observed the coloration, and referred to Medway’s description. I again came up with bronzed tube-nosed bat. Still not convinced that I hadn’t made an error in utilizing the taxonomic key, I ran through the characters a third time. Again the final couplet of the key led to Murina aenea, the bronzed tube-nosed bat.

What a discovery! I sat staring in disbelief at the little mammal lying in my hand, an emissary from an alien world. Such a find would certainly be worthy of a note in the Malayan Nature Journal. Publishing such findings, even if they require no more than a one page communication, is the stuff of scientific fulfillment not to mention responsibility. But, I had to be sure of

the identification so I went to the ultimate source, the British biologist J.E. Hill. He was the mammalogist who had established the bat in question as a new species based upon the original specimen which had been collected by Medway himself. After receiving my introductory letter, describing what it was I thought I had found, Hill responded with a request to have the bat sent to him in England. After carefully protecting the specimens (skin and skull) in layers of cotton, I boxed the little bat and sent it on its way to the British Museum of Natural History in London. Correspondence by mail from one side of the earth to the other was not rapid in 1975. Finally, after a wait of nearly three weeks, a letter from Hill appeared in my mailbox. With excited anticipation, I opened the envelope. Yes! My identification was confirmed; I had indeed encountered only the second specimen of bronzed tube-nosed bat in the world. Hill also requested that the British Museum serve as the repository for the specimen. Building a museum collection at the University of Agriculture was important to me but it seemed only proper to have the second record housed in a more certifiably permanent site. I also felt that Hill held priority on the bat as both its discoverer and as a recognized expert of Southeast Asian bats. So, I responded with permission to retain the bat specimen.

Although it now lies, likely forgotten, in a drawer among the vast array of specimen cabinets within the British Museum, I recall this little mammal with something akin to affection. Through our chance meeting I was bestowed a wonderful reward. To be one of only a few people to have ever seen this mammal was an exceptional experience. I was granted the opportunity to sense, first hand, the thrill of scientific discovery. I was given the rare gift of the immortality bestowed by the written word. I felt the exhilaration of knowing that, for the fortunate explorer, extraordinary treasures still lie in wait within the rainforest.  Yes, as I recall the little bronzed tube-nosed bat, I think affection is the correct word.


*psocid image courtesy of Tom Murray at https://bugguide.net/node/view/145918

Mammal images from Medway. 1969. The Wild Mammals of Malaya and offshore islands including Singapore. Oxford Univ. Press. London.

6. Panic Among the Earthworms

I have often been struck by the abundance of what, at first encounter, seem to be rather mundane stories of the success, tragedy and survival observable within the natural world. These are incidents which, upon further examination, are revealed to be anything but ordinary. Often these dramas are there for the partaking and require nothing more than attentiveness on our part, though sometimes it helps to add a dollop of luck. At other times, the interactions of things wild are more subtle and seeing them requires the practice of patience, stealth, and a bit of hard work. Whichever the case, what is often revealed are behaviors or ecological interactions that are far from commonplace and are astounding in their complexity. Take the lowly earthworms for example. I speak of Lumbricus, Aporrectodea, Diplocardia and their ilk. Local fisher-folk may refer to them as night crawler, red worm, wriggler, or dew worm. Earthworms belong to a widely distributed and biologically successful group known as the annelid worms. They are so-called because of the division of the body into small, ring-like segments (annuli). Leeches and certain marine worms are also annelids. But it is earthworms that are involved in this story.

The students in my introductory biology classes were often astounded at the complexity of these little animals. I suppose they had presumed that worms were simply long, tubular creatures which were full of some sort of unidentifiable black mush. They also had likely assumed that the worm’s main purpose was to repose at the end of a fish hook. However, upon opening the body cavity of an earthworm they were amazed to find a brain, a ventral nerve cord, several hearts, a muscular pharynx, a crop, gizzard, lengthy intestine, and a collection of rather complex reproductive organs – both male and female actually. Incidentally, the student’s newly found awareness is one of the reasons I supported the idea of doing dissections in a biology or zoology class. Many argue that it is inhumane and teaches children to devalue life. I see it as the exact opposite. How could one peer into an animal, which minutes ago was perceived as nothing more than an inert rubbery tube, only to find an extreme intricacy of organ systems and thus not be more appreciative of the anatomical sophistication and physiological elegance of any living organism?

Earthworms breathe through their skin by diffusion and thus must remain moist. This is one reason their skin is so liberally impregnated with mucus glands. As a result, handling them is a bit of a sticky endeavor. They have no eyes but are quite sensitive to light via their skin cells. Staying out of the light helps prevent drying of the skin, which could lead to suffocation, and lessons the chance of being seen by a predator. Since they operate mostly in a world devoid of light, earthworms are highly sensitive to vibrations within the soil. All in all, I find them mighty impressive.

No less a scientific giant than Charles Darwin spent years studying the behavior and ecology of earthworms.  In fact, the last book he published dealt with this subject. Darwin pointed out, as others have since, that earthworms may play a valuable role in nature. Their tunneling forms passageways for oxygen and water to enter the soil. Their waste products, mucus slime, and dead bodies fertilize the soil. This is well and good within a lawn or garden. However, more recent studies have shown that non-native earthworms, of which Indiana has a few, may be detrimental in forests where their overabundance can reduce soil fertility and thus diminish the number of native plant species present.

Earthworms, as you might guess, are a food source for a variety of animals. These range from the robins one sees hopping about in the yard to the moles lurking below the surface. Ah yes, moles; now we come to the crux of this story. I’m afraid moles are most often thought of by humans in the most negative of contexts. I must admit that skimming over one of their raised tunnel rooves while mowing and thus removing a huge clump of sod from a well-manicured lawn is aggravating. However moles are highly beneficial for soil aeration and water uptake in the same way as earthworms. Home owners often blame them for damage to their plants but moles are innocent. The fact is they are voracious little carnivores. Scarab beetle larvae, ants, ground beetles are all fair game. But guess what animal constitutes their favorite prey? If you said, “What are earthworms?” the Jeopardy prize is yours.

With some effort, I’ve tried to imagine the life of an earthworm. Can you too picture yourself creeping along a tiny, claustrophobic tunnel in a cool, damp world totally bereft of light? This is a Stygian realm, dark and forbidding as Miller’s Cave. There are monstrous beasts here; gigantic, furred creatures with but one thought on their minds – the securing of a nice meal of earthworm. We are blind and without defense in this gloomy world. Slowly inching forward by taking mouthful after mouthful of soil; it would be fortunate that our tiny brain could not foresee the inevitable, gruesome end as three dozen sharply pointed teeth render us into mole fodder.

That was the image that originally existed in my mind regarding the subterranean interaction of moles and earthworms. I saw the worms as little more than slowly moving targets waiting to be consumed by the much larger, more intelligent, and vastly more powerful mole. I’m afraid I had underestimated the behavioral potentials of the earthworm and the power of natural selection to shape them. This is how I came to that conclusion.

Standing in my flower garden, I was leaning on my rake taking a well-deserved break from a morning of tilling and planting. Idly glancing down at the ground, I was quite surprised to see three earthworms suddenly appear onto the surface and begin to crawl rapidly away from the spot from which they had emerged. If one could apply the term run to animals without legs, this was such a case. They seemed to be fleeing for their lives as if in a state of terror. As I watched them speed away, another sight caught my eye. Within a foot of where the worms had emerged, the soil was making periodic, upward, pulsations. It was an eastern mole paddling its way through the topsoil.  I really was quite flabbergasted as I made the connection between the emergent flight of the earthworms and the sudden appearance of the mole.  It was rather obvious that the worms were sensitive to the vibrations produced by the approaching mole and had taken to the surface in a last ditch effort to avoid becoming a meal. To me this seemed a remarkable piece of behavior from animals with a brain about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. If the worms recognized the vibrations as a threat, did this imply that they could remember? Didn’t this behavior suggest not only the capacity of memory but, more specifically, the ability to recall that the vibrations were produced by their arch nemesis, the mole? Did this indicate that they then had to analyze this memory and decide upon an appropriate response? In other words, were they actually capable of advanced neural integration? I don’t want to be anthropomorphic but the earthworm equivalent of memory, integration, and response borders on what I had always assumed were marks of intelligence. Darwin, in his aforementioned studies, devised experiments to observe how worms handled leaf material of different shapes. The results suggested to him that they did possess intelligence. He compared their abilities to the highly developed dexterous sense possessed by people who are deprived of sight.

To me, the fact that such high powered sensory effort could be accomplished by an animal with such a primitive nervous system was stunning. What was going on within that relatively tiny accumulation of neurons? Some might say, well it’s just instinctive behavior. But, what does that mean? It only opens another series of questions. What is instinct? Yes, I know that instinct is an inherited behavior but how then does a neuron convert DNA code into a physical behavior? How does an earthworm, or a human for that matter, store the information needed for an instinctive response in a cell that for all intents and purposes is no different than a skin cell? Neurons, like skin cells, have a cell membrane within which is the cytoplasm. This is mostly water. Scattered within this protoplasm is a collection of organelles such as the nucleus which acts as the cell’s control center. There are mitochondria for energy production and ribosomes for synthesizing proteins. Where, and how, on earth does a worm store a memory of what the vibrations of a mole feel like? For that matter, how do we store the memory of a favorite song, a list of phone numbers, or the recollection of a favorite vacation spot? I’ve read that neurobiologists explain memory as the repeated use of certain nerve cell processes.  I’m still left in the dark. What does that mean? If I could miniaturize myself, like the crew in Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage, and actually look at a stored memory, what would I see? Would the recollection, implanted those many years ago, of my wife’s first kiss exist as a huge organic molecule of some sort? Would it be a dendrite somewhat thicker than all the others protruding from a brain cell? Would one nerve cell, or a group of them, have a plethora of dendritic extensions compared to others? Somehow, in trying to understand the magnificence of memory and brain function, whether in earthworm or man, I arrive at an impasse. I can go no further in my attempt to comprehend either the biological or the transcendent marvel of it all. Contemplating the maneuvering of the little earthworm trio certainly opened a world of wonder for me.

So here we have it, a remarkably complex escape behavior in an animal we all too often view with total indifference, if not disdain. And lying beyond that, a doorway into the curious world of instinct, memory, and intelligence is opened. The whole earthworm/mole encounter forced me to contemplate how many other phenomena of the natural world have rested at my feet, unnoticed through simple inattention. All in all, such chance meetings serve as illustrations of the incredible complexity of interactions that make a typical ecosystem such a marvel to behold. If only we take the time, give ourselves the opportunity. Observations, which at first glance seem so simple and straightforward, will often compel us to consider in even greater depth just how multifaceted, entertaining, and extraordinary is the living world we inhabit.

A Postscript:

In investigating the fascinating phenomenon of earthworms responding defensively to the presence of moles, I ran across an interesting way in which humans capitalize on this behavior. It seems that quite a few folks were way ahead of me in being aware of how earthworms respond to vibrations in the soil. This is a very handy piece of knowledge if one is interested in collecting bait for fishing.  Ever hear of worm grunting? Check it out.