What Makes a Jumping Bean So Jumpy?
A few months ago, I had the chance to take a bush walk with one of the most respected trail guides in South Africa, Stefan Winterboer. After showing us where a hippo had marked its territory by power-washing a small tree with its dung and then navigating us between two breeding herds of elephants on either side of a dry creek bed, Winterboer knelt down to consider a pile of hardened fruits beneath a gray-barked tree.
This was a tamboti tree, he said, though some call it the jumping bean tree. In a few weeks, this quiet grove would be crackling with the sound of seeds leaping off the ground like popping corn, the result of moth larvae trying to break out of their makeshift incubators.
We could still hear the rustling menace of elephants a drainage over, but all I wanted to do was camp out and wait for the jumping beans.
The African jumping bean is not nearly as well known, of course, as its Mexican counterpart. The seedpods or “beans” of the shrub Sebastiania pavoniana, which grows in the deserts of northwest Mexico, are also infected by moth larvae. Holding one in the palm of your hand raises the temperature within the seedpod and causes the larva to fidget. But these beans aren’t quivering for our amusement. Too much heat, like that delivered from direct Mexican sunlight, will kill a baby moth. So instead of being scorched alive, the larva hurls itself against the inside of the bean, which makes the whole capsule jump. If it’s lucky, the larva will hop until it finds a nice place in the shade.
So the moth larvae in Mexican jumping beans jump to change their climate, and the ones in tamboti fruit jump to escape from their seedpods. These two behaviors, similar in form but different in their goals, appear to have evolved separately: The two species of moth are found in different families. But by a weird coincidence, the plants these species parasitize are pretty close to each other. Both belong to something called the spurge family, or Euphorbiaceae.
Cut into the bark of either plant and you’ll release a milky latex that has been used as a poison. For hundreds of years, people living near tamboti trees have put the stuff on darts for hunting large game. Even a sprinkle of crushed-up tamboti bark can make a stream full of fish go belly-up—like a chemical grenade.
In Mexico, traditional hunters and fishermen employed the same strategies with the sap of Sebastiania bilocularis, a lesser-known species of tree that also produces jumping beans. According to Adrian Burton, who wrote about jumping beans for an article last year in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the trees can be so toxic that locals avoid using them for firewood. The smoke taints food and causes eye irritation.
If you’re really in a pinch, the liquid can be used for medical procedures otherwise impossible when you’re deep in the bush. As Winterboer tells it, a friend of his once cracked a tooth while he was on an expedition. The pain was so great, and the friend so desperate, that he allowed the local guides to apply a bit of tamboti sap to the exposed cavity in his tooth. Like liquid flame, the sap burned the nerve out, effectively achieving the same result as a root canal.
How exactly moth larvae cope with such a seriously lethal habitat has not been studied. Perhaps setting up in a tree with poison blood affords the little guys some sort of protection from predators.
If that’s the case, we do know that the plan is not foolproof.
According to Peter Oboyski, collections manager for the Essig Museum of Entomology at the University of California–Berkeley, there are species of parasitic wasps that descend upon moth larvae in their seedpod homes, inject their spawn into the beans with alien-like ovipositors, and fly away. The wasp eggs eventually hatch and start doing what parasitic wasp larvae do—eating their hosts alive. (Oh, parasitic wasps, I love you so.)
Other types of parasitic wasps have also been known to do a little bebopping of their own. The California jumping gall wasp lays its eggs on the underside of oak tree leaves. It’s not completely understood how the oak knows the egg is there, but it tries to protect itself from the invader by sealing the egg inside a hard shell of tissue. Botanists call this growth a gall, but to the wasp, it’s every bit as good as a cocoon. Eventually, the galls detach and fall to the ground, and then they, too, skitter around. In this case, it seems the wasps are looking to move their capsules into leaf litter or cracks in the soil where they will ride out the winter.
We know a little more about one species of hopping wasp in particular, Bathyplectes anurus, thanks to a study published in December in a journal called Science of Nature. These wasps attack alfalfa weevils, injecting their spawn into the cocoon the weevils spin and then eating them alive. Once the weevils are consumed, the wasp larvae then form another cocoon within the ones they’ve just invaded and settle in for about 10 months of pupation.
The thing is, a lot can happen in 10 months. Branches can grow or break and expose the wasps to excess sunlight or too much rain. Whatever the case, the larvae seem to give themselves a better chance at survival by moving their hibernation chambers around a bit—using the same larval lurch we’ve come to know and love. According to the recent paper, B. anurus larvae that were placed in the shade survived at higher rates than those left in the sun. Similarly, when presented with the chance to hop into the shade, many of the larvae did exactly that.
Japanese giant ants are also known to make the larvae shiver. When the scientists introduced some ants into the same controlled environment as the double cocoons, the larvae started jumping at frequencies 83 percent higher than those in an ant-free environment. The ants didn’t even have to touch the cocoons for the wasps to know they were there. It’s unclear exactly how wasp larvae enshrined within two layers of cocoon would know there were ants nearby, but the scientists suspect the larvae may be able to pick up on chemical cues or vibrations.
Once the ants made contact with the cocoon—feeling it out with their antennae or clutching it with their mandibles—the larvae began to chill out. It could be that once they know they’ve been spotted, the larvae play possum—a widespread behavior in the animal kingdom.
But all this larval leaping comes at a cost. The researchers found that larvae that had been induced to jump lost a lot of weight compared with larvae that were allowed to veg out—and for insects especially, body size can be the difference between life and death.
Both moths in jumping beans and wasps evolved strategies to make the best of a bad situation. Jumping affords them some semblance of control over their environment, despite lacking legs and wings and being sealed up in the insect equivalent of a body bag. And the fact that this behavior has evolved independently multiple times is super interesting.
So if you ever come across a little pod shimmying its way across your path, take pity on the creature and nudge it into the shade. Inside, there’s a living thing desperately trying to change its own fate.
The Most Disconcerting Animal That Lives In Your Home
According to a study published last week, your house could be home to more than 500 different kinds of insects, spiders, and other arthropods. That means jumping bristletails, firebrats, and minute pirate bugs. We’re talking about bark lice, fairyflies, and death watch beetles.
What, you’ve never heard of root maggot flies? Too bad, 10 percent of the homes sampled have them. Fungus gnats? Found in 68 percent of homes. Spitting spiders? Yeah, they’re around. And you can forget about asking them to chip in for rent.
But of all the creepy crawlies possibly crashing at your home as we speak, perhaps none is more disconcerting than the downright dastardly-looking pseudoscorpion.
Like mites, spiders, and true scorpions, the pseudoscorpions are arachnids. They have eight legs, two claws, and ticklike bodies. The good news is that they differ from their kissing cousins in one main respect—they lack a tail and the stinger that goes with it. The bad news is some species have venom glands in their claws.
Pseudoscorpions were found in 20 percent of homes in the new study, by the way. So if we can apply the findings to America at large, your odds of cohabitating with a pseudoscorpion are at least 1 in 5. Probably higher, though. Pseudoscorpions are sneaky, so the researchers probably missed quite a few of them.
Now, before you go reaching for the Kill It With Fire button, there are some things you should know about your new arachnid roommates. For starters, says Matt Bertone, an entomologist at North Carolina State University and lead author of the new study, pseudoscorpions, venom glands and all, are completely harmless to humans.
They’re too small to do any harm, to start with—a few millimeters to less than a centimeter long, says Bertone, who found his first pseudoscorpion hiding in a washcloth in his parents’ bathroom when he was young. (He shooed the arachnid into a peanut butter jar and named it Skippy.)
Now, things might be different if you were ever to find yourself in a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids–type situation. That’s because some pseudoscorpion species hunt in packs, taking down beetles and millipedes up to 30 times their size. Tiny legions have even been seen attacking and dismembering Cephalotes atratus, a tropical ant with few natural predators and armor like a shiny, black tank. Adult pseudoscorpions line up along the entrance to their colony, according to one study, “to form a nearly continuous battery of chelae,” or claws. Then, when an ant comes close, the pseudoscorpions lunge forward and grab its legs with their pincers, then quickly retreat—pinning the prey against the opening of the pseudoscorpion colony. Now that the ant is immobilized, nymphs emerge from the colony and start sawing at its joints. Every armor has its weakness.
And did I mention that pseudoscorpions can fly? I mean, not technically—they don’t have wings or anything. But they can use their claws like grappling hooks to attach themselves to creatures that do. Birds and insects are their primary flight vectors, which is why even if you’re in the middle of the Pacific on a deserted island, you’re probably still surrounded by pseudoscorpions.
What’s wild about pseudoscorpion hitchhiking is that it isn’t just an accident. They don’t simply climb onto a beetle and then say, Whoa, this thing’s moving! like that spider on your windshield. No, pseudoscorpions seek out aerial transport, or phoresy. Because of their size, it’s basically the only way for them to get to new habitats.
In fact, phoresy is so crucial to the life cycle of some pseudoscorpion species that courtship and mating take place on the beetle. This has been documented in the giant harlequin beetles, which have been seen carrying up to 30 pseudoscorpions at a time. (Can somebody please get video of this and set it to Ride of the Valkyries?)
You know how rams butt heads to determine who will get breeding rights to all the females? Well, pseudoscorpions do the same thing. Only it’s a royal rumble on the belly of a beetle. In midair. With the losers often tossed overboard. And the last pair of pincers earns himself an orgy.
Of course, pseudoscorpion sex isn’t all that sexy. The males deposit a packet of sperm and protein called a spermataphore, and then dance around it until a female becomes interested. Sometimes the male will even hold her hand-claw and sort of tug her over toward the spermatophore. If she acquiesces, she’ll sit on the packet and absorb some of the genetic material for the next generation.
At least, that’s the way the big, bruiser males want it to go. But like squid, orangutans, and many other species, there’s a way for smaller, weaker, “sneaker” males to pass on their genes even if they get booted from the beetle like it was Air Force One. That’s because neither pseudoscorpion males nor females are monogamous. And the females are capable of storing sperm from multiple males, so even if a pipsqueak pseudoscorpion isn’t her first, her last, or her only, his DNA could turn into more arachnids wherever the harlequin lands.
This is particularly good news for them, because there’s some evidence to suggest that pseudoscorpions can suffer from genetic incompatibility. This means that for some reason, certain sets of DNA just will never be able to make a baby pseudoscorpion. Other research has found that females actively seek out new mates and will eschew the advances of males they’ve already done the beetle dance with—perhaps as a way to ensure that they don’t get stuck with a single male with DNA they can’t do anything with. (For more on all of this, check out Olivia Judson’s excellent book, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation.)
I think sometimes we get so caught up with dumbo octopuses, honey badgers, and other exotic animals that we forget about the biodiversity in our own backyards.
And you better believe you have pseudoscorpions in your backyard. Lauren Esposito, curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences, says she puts the chances of backyard pseudoscorpions—unless you live in Antarctica—at about 100 percent.
“You should go pull apart an old log or peel some bark off a tree and chances are you'll find some,” says Esposito, who was not involved in the study. “Most people have just never looked.”
Inside your home, pseudoscorpions may actually qualify as friends with benefits. That’s because the most common species, Chelifer cancroides, has earned a reputation as a voracious predator of book lice and springtails—small creatures known for gnawing through old books. According to Julia Cosgrove, a Ph.D. student at Harvard, Aristotle first recorded these little buggers crawling around on his scrolls.
But books and scrolls aren’t the only household items protected by household arachnids. Some species have been known to prey upon mites and moth larvae.
“Dust mites have been attributed to allergies, and moth larvae eat your clothes, so it's probably not a bad thing to cultivate some predatory pseudoscorpions in your home,” says Esposito.
But it could be even more than that, says Michelle Trautwein, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences and a co-author on the new domestic arthropods study. Because a survey like this has never been done before, we’re only just scratching the surface on the potential impacts the little critters might have on our lives.
“When we think about these unexplored ecosystems on the planet, we think about things like the rainforest or the bottom of the ocean floor,” says Trautwein, “but the truth is, our houses, to some degree, are these relatively new ecosystems, evolutionarily speaking. And they’re totally unexplored.”
For instance, just as a harlequin beetle may harbor a bevy of pseudoscorpions, those stowaways likely have stowaways of their own—be they mites or microbes. Who knows, the bacteria carried by pseuodscorpions could have some effect on the microbial biodiversity of our homes with as-of-yet unstudied impacts on human health. We simply don’t know.
The point is, even if you’re squeamish about sharing your home with more than 500 kinds of arthropod—some of them pseudoscorpions—studies have shown that living with biodiversity is usually a good thing for human health. And besides, if a book scorpion is up on your shelf murdering all the lice you didn’t know you had, what do you care?
I’ll leave you with a final pseudoscorpion fact that will either win you over or lose you completely. All species of pseudoscorpion that we’ve studied have shown some sort of parenting. Sometimes that’s just mom attaching her sac of eggs to her abdomen and cleaning and protecting the embryos. Other times, it involves the mother pseudoscorpion spinning a silk chamber for the eggs to rest in.
And sometimes, when food is short and the nymphs are hangry, the mother pseudoscorpion will simply allow her young to devour her alive. She doesn’t even put up a fight. This is called matriphagy.
Is matriphagy evidence that pseudoscorpions are tender creatures, capable of the greatest bodily sacrifice in the care of their young? Or is it proof that these animals are stone cold minimonsters—be-clawed hell-beasts prowling about your bookshelf?
The answer, of course, is a matter of perspective.
Thanks to entomologist Everton Tizo-Pedroso for his help on this piece and for his work investigating the fabulously complex lives of these tiny book monsters.
Why Do Dogs, Cats, Camels, and Llamas Make That Weird Face?
Please stop what you’re doing—which, presumably, is reading this article—and do a quick Google image search. You don’t even have to type anything—just click here. (I promise, there’s nothing unsavory at the other end, but its phasers are set to giggle.)
Ladies and gentlemen, what you’re seeing is the flehmen response, a scent-sucking mechanism employed by many mammalian species, and I’d argue the best dang animal-related search on the Internet.
Recent years have gifted us with the nope octopus, Game of Goats, and doge-speak. And while all of these cultural phenomena are hilarious in their own right, they’re all heavily influenced by the context we humans have provided. For instance, dramatic chipmunk is a lot less dramatic if you take away his music (and his light sabers, monocles, James Bond filters, etc).
But the flehmen response is au natural. The goats and tigers and tapirs you see here have not been provoked in any way. They do not have peanut butter on the roofs of their mouths, nor have they been trained to respond to a cue. They’re just animals doing animal stuff—and looking like a gang of proper goofs while doing it.
So, what the actual flehmen is going on here?
Also known as the lip-curl, the gape response, or more simply, funny cat face, the flehmen response is a behavior some animals use to investigate a smell. You can witness flehmening in everything from the house cat on your lap to rhinos, rams, elk, llamas, and giraffes.
John Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist and author of myriad books about animals, says it’s easy to mistake the behavior for aggression, since the animal bares its teeth as it scrunches up its face. But what’s actually happening is that the cat or moose is physically opening up two tiny ducts on the roof of its mouth behind its incisors.
“If you’ve got an older dog—supposing it’s a friendly animal—you can pry its face apart and look up and see them,” says Bradshaw. “The ducts are a couple of millimeters wide, and in their normal state they look like little, flat slits.”
Officially called the nasopalatine canals, these ducts go up through the roof of the mouth and connect with something called the vomeronasal organ (aka the Jacobson’s organ). Bradshaw explains that this is a sort of accessory olfactory bulb, with completely different neurons than the ones associated with the sense of smell.
In fact, scientists think that the information processed by this organ lies somewhere in between the sense of smell and taste. The ducts are full of saliva, so whatever molecules get trapped in there have to be physically pumped up to the vomeronasal organ with special muscles. Whereas an animal can’t help but automatically take in smells when it breathes through its nose, the flehmen response is a voluntary action, like swallowing.
So, why do buffaloes and hedgehogs require a spare form of sniffing? And aren’t dogs already supposed to have some of the most superpowered schnozzes in the biz?
Interestingly, Bradshaw says that cats may have the better end of the deal when it comes to vomeronasal organs. The average tabby has 30 different types of receptors up in there while your hound dog has just 9.
“Presumably, if you’ve got three times as many receptors, you can discriminate between a lot more things,” says Bradshaw.
In other words, when a cat goes into full flehmen, it isn’t just sniffing. It’s sniffing in high resolution.
But if we really want to talk about super sniffers, we need to look at the meek. In Bradshaw’s book Cat Sense, he writes that mice have hundreds of receptor types. “The odorants mice pick up regulate reproduction, as well as enabling recognition of every other mouse in the neighborhood from its unique odor ‘fingerprint.’ ”
Most animals, and this is true for cats especially, seem to use their flehmen response when investigating smells from other members of their own species. This means the vomeronasal organ is important for mating, marking territory, and intraspecific communication.
But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. One study conducted with Saanen goats found that the animals used the flehmen response to investigate urine from 15 different mammal species, three bird species, and two reptile species. In the trial, the goats seemed to flehmen more intensely in contact with the urine of farm animals than with that of zoo animals. But who knows, perhaps goats just flehmen anytime they get sprayed in the face with urine. (I’d probably make a funny face, too.)
By the way, not all animals that have vomeronasal organs perform the flehmen response. Elephants do a pseudo-version of the behavior, but supplement it by physically bringing smells into contact with their ducts, which are on the top of their mouth cavities. So if you ever see an elephant at the zoo touching a puddle of urine with its trunk and then putting that same yucky trunk into its mouth—it’s not eating the urine, it’s flehmening it. Similarly, snakes have no need to snarl. They transfer scent molecules directly to the organ using their forked tongues, which fit into those tiny mouth pits like a plug into a socket.
If your tongue has been searching the roof of your mouth for holes, fear not. Humans lack these special ducts and the vomeronasal organs to go with them. In fact, that’s probably why you’ve never heard of the flehmen response—it’s not something we can do.
But this probably wasn’t always the case—our ancestors certainly flehmened, and you can see evidence of it during development. When the human fetus forms, it actually sets out on a path toward building a vomerosonal organ.
“But then at some point it just fades away and disappears,” says Bradshaw.
When the baby is born, the only remaining clues are a pair of pits at the bottom of our nostrils where the ducts used to connect to the organ—a nonfunctional token of our evolutionary past.
Why Don’t People Eat Turtle Soup Anymore?
They say you can get seven different kinds of meat from butchering a turtle. Depending on what part of the turtle you’re chewing on, the taste may be reminiscent of pork, or chicken, or veal, or fish, or whatever … you get the picture. Perhaps this variability can partly explain why turtle has been such a popular menu item throughout the history of the United States. At least, it used to be. Not so long ago you could find Campbell’s turtle soup sitting alongside minestrone and tomato in grocery stores throughout the country. So what happened? How and why did an American staple virtually vanish?
It’s a question Saveur magazine recently tried to tackle. Now, if you ask me or anyone else who knows much about turtles and turtle conservation, the answer is quite simple: There are not enough turtles left to eat. For example, a picture of a few chefs hovering over the carcass of a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) leads off the Saveur article. Today green sea turtles, like all other species of sea turtles, are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. If you ate one in the United States, you would be committing a felony.
Turtles are one of the most imperiled groups of animals on the planet. Habitat loss is probably their biggest threat; when a wetland is drained, a field paved over, or a nesting beach overrun with condominiums, there is simply no space left for turtles. But harvesting too many for food has played a key role in driving down turtle populations in this country and across the world. In fact, the market for turtle soup was so intensive in the United States that many of our turtle populations are still recovering from trapping and harvesting that occurred decades ago. Ironically, the Saveur article exploring the loss of turtle soup did not even consider that the meal’s popularity played an important role in its own vanishing act. As turtles disappeared, so did turtle soup.
The Saveur article unwittingly demonstrates why so many species have become threatened or gone extinct in the past few hundred years. When we have a limited understanding of an animal’s natural history and care only about its meat or feathers or shells, we may overlook how our actions could be killing them off for good.
Turtle populations have an interesting survival strategy. Most young turtles and eggs are eaten by predators like raccoons, herons, and big fish. This wasn’t historically a problem, because turtles that do survive to adulthood typically live for many, many years. They produce so many eggs over their lifetime that chances are good at least a few will survive long enough to replace their aging parents. The strategy works quite well as long as we don’t take the adult turtles out of the population—particularly the females—before they’ve had their many years of reproduction. That is why even individual turtles are so important (and why I have been known to go to great lengths to help them).
There are many different species of turtles, and we have different relationships with (and recipes for) each of them. During the Great Depression, gopher tortoises became such an important source of meat for rural Southerners that they earned a new nickname, “Hoover chicken” that honored, so to speak, our president at the time, Herbert Hoover. That species is now federally threatened in Louisiana, Mississippi, and western Alabama, and is under protection everywhere it occurs. Diamondback terrapins, the beautifully patterned turtles inhabiting brackish waters along the East Coast, were harvested so heavily for food that the U.S. government started to get concerned about their vastly depleted populations more than 100 years ago.
Any species could end up in soup or stew, but in this country turtle soup is synonymous with the alligator snapping turtle. Interestingly, you would never know of our long history with alligator snapping turtles from reading the Saveur magazine piece, because it never even mentioned the species. That’s like writing an entire article about cheeseburgers and never mentioning beef … or cows.
Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtle in North America. Formerly considered one species, there are now two or three different kinds of alligator snapping turtle, depending on whom you ask. They are quite impressive: Big old alligator snappers can reach well over 100 pounds. And old is right, these turtles can live past 50 years, if not a century; they don’t even become sexually mature and able to reproduce until after their first decade of life. In the 1960s and 1970s we almost wiped out alligator snapping turtles because so many adults were harvested for soup. One former collector reported that he and his colleagues removed several tons of these animals from one river in Georgia every day during the 1970s and only stopped when they weren’t catching enough anymore to make it worthwhile.
That river is the Flint River, which I lived next to from 2004 to 2007. Despite having lived near excellent alligator snapping turtle habitat, I have seen only a few of these animals in my life. It is hard to imagine the Flint River crawling with literally tons of giant alligator snapping turtles. Maybe someday our streams and rivers will again be chock-full of these beasts, but it won’t be during my lifetime.
Fortunately, alligator snapping turtles are now afforded some protection in every state in which they occur, and at this very moment the federal government is under pressure to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. Even Louisiana, once the hub of the turtle soup industry, outlawed commercial collection of this species in 2004. Given that these animals received protection only recently, it will be a long time before populations rebound to their historic levels, if ever. In some restaurants you can still find traditional turtle soup that contains alligator snapping turtle, but these days the animals come from farms and were not collected from wild populations.
The turtle hunters from the Saveur article were in Virginia, and their quarry was a different kind of snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. This species is still relatively abundant in Virginia, but commercial collection is illegal. Commercial collection of even relatively common turtle species has recently been outlawed throughout much the southeastern United States in response to an increasing demand from Asia. This alarming and increasing demand had started to put an unsustainable strain on our turtle populations. But in some states, depending on the species, you can still take a couple for personal use.
Even if people are allowed to eat a few turtles every once in a while, there is another important reason why we may not want to: It’s not just bad for the turtles; it’s bad for us. Remember how turtles can live for decades? Well, if that turtle is sitting in polluted water, it is going to be absorbing and consuming contaminants for many years. This unfortunate habit has made the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)—the same species that features heavily in the Saveur article—a model organism for studying how pollutants persist in wetlands. For example, despite a ban since 1979 on the manufacture of polychlorinated biphenyls, turtles in some areas still have alarmingly high concentrations of PCBs in their blood and their meat. PCBs can cause a wide range of serious health problems in people. And forget tuna—if you want to avoid mercury, you should cut snapping turtle out of your diet. Patterns of pollutants differ depending on which swamp the turtle has been sitting in for the past 50 years, but I think I’ll pass either way.
Turtle soup in the United States did not fade away simply because our palates changed. Our taste for turtle soup exploded to unsustainable levels and caused the turtles to disappear first. They still haven’t come back.
Pterosaurs Were Even More Awesome Than Dinosaurs
At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, there’s no way to miss the Tyrannosaurs. The museum’s curators have constructed a scene in which two colossal theropods square off over a kill—mouths agape, teeth like sickles threatening to disembowel whichever fossil flinches first. You can almost feel the ground shake as the stone giants circle the carcass.
But what of the sky? We tend to forget that while T. rex, Triceratops, Diplodocus, and the like were lumbering across the land, the air above was thick with volant reptiles.
If you look up, you’ll see that the bones of Quetzalcoatlus, a pterosaur the size of a freakin’ fighter jet.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t even know it’s there,” says Matt Lamanna, a paleontologist at the CMNH.
Of course, if humans had lived during the time of the pterosaurs, I think we’d have learned to look up.
Quetzalcoatlus and its cousins are the largest flying creatures that ever lived. On the ground, they stalked about on all fours while standing 16 feet high. They had sharp, nasty beaks longer than the tallest basketball players are tall. In the sky, their leathery skin wings unfurled into airfoils some 36 feet wide. (Some of the more out-there estimates give the beasts wingspans of seemingly impossible proportions—nearly 70 feet in one extrapolation.)
But Quetzalcoatlus and its monstrous kin are just one branch of the pterosaur family tree. We tend to think of pterosaurs as all being big, flappy sky reptiles, but these animals were every bit as diverse as the dinosaurs they shared the world with. And most of us don’t know a lick about them.
For starters, did you know that pterosaurs were not, in fact, dinosaurs?
“Pterosaurs are about as closely related as they can be to a dinosaur without being a dinosaur themselves,” says Lamanna. “So when you hear people call them ‘flying dinosaurs,’ that’s almost right, but not quite.”
Another way to explain this confusion is that some dinosaurs gave rise to modern birds, which can look a bit like pterosaurs. But there are no living descendants of the pterosaurs.
And while we’re clearing up semantics, can we get a show of hands of who uses the word pterodactyl as a synonym for pterosaur? (Don’t be shy. My hand is up.)
In fact, pterodactyls are simply one kind of pterosaur. So referring to all pterosaurs as though they were pterodactyls is a bit like calling every species of cat a leopard.
But perhaps the wackiest and most misunderstood thing about the pterosaurs was that, as a group, they varied in size from the gargantuan Quetzalcoatlus—named for the Aztec serpent god—all the way down to creatures that would have been about the size of a songbird. (Remember Petrie from The Land Before Time? He was a pterosaur.)
“If you can think of an ecological niche or job that a bird does today, there’s a good chance that we know of a pterosaur that probably did the same thing,” says Lamanna.
The Azhdarchids, which include Quetzalcoatlus, are thought to have been giant plains predators, capable of killing prey with their spearlike beaks and then swallowing it whole. They probably also muscled in on carcasses that some other predator had already brought down. This opportunistic lifestyle is similar to that of modern-day storks and hornbills. But, you know, storks and hornbills from hell.
(There is a bit of good news, should Jurassic Park theme parks ever become a reality. Pterosaurs had nowhere near the grasping power that modern eagles or hawks possess. So in Jurassic World, when pterosaurs break out of the aviary and start plucking tourists off the ground like berries from a bush, Lamanna says we should be skeptical. “It’s just not something pterosaurs could do. I don’t think even the biggest pterosaur could pick up a human-sized object.” Still, watch out for the beaks.)
Some smaller pterosaurs acted like modern-day oystercatchers that stabbed or hammered their prey. And toothy-grinned Dsungaripterus used its massive molars to chomp right through clams, crabs, and whatever other shelled creatures it could fit in its maw.
In what is now South America, scientists have found a filter-feeding pterosaur named Pterodaustro that seems to have filled the role that flamingoes do today. These animals used their curved beaks and hundreds of bristle-like teeth to strain the ancient waters for plankton, algae, and small crustaceans.
“And then there’s this really weird group of insect eaters, the Anurognathids,” says Lamanna. “These would have been about the size of a modest bird, like a blue jay, and seemed to be extremely agile.”
Personally, I love the Anurognathids because they don’t conform to what we tend to think of when we imagine pterosaurs. They don’t have the long beaks, head crests, or tails of pterosaurs in movies and cartoons. In fact, to see some artist renderings, it looks like nature took the head of a snake, mixed in the teeth of a piranha, and slapped it on a bat. Other species may have looked like sugar gliders, swallowtail moths, or creatures out of a Tim Burton film.
Like birds, pterosaurs tended to have fragile bones—an adaptation for lightness and flight, but one that makes fossilization a precarious process. Lamanna says because of this we’ve probably only just scratched the surface on the variety of pterosaurs that once existed.
Might we one day find a pterosaur that lived like an owl? What about puffin, woodpecker, and parrot pterosaurs? Might some of these creatures have found ways to survive without flight, like the ostrich or penguin do today? (In fact, some scientists have argued that Quetzalcoatlus would have been too big to get airborne. Most other experts disagree, though.)
These are the kinds of questions asked by an exhibit called “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs” now making its way across the country. The pterosaurs land in Pittsburgh on Jan. 30, 2016, and I can’t wait.
One thing, at least, is clear. Pterosaurs were incredibly diverse creatures, far more so than our plastic toys and CGI-laden movies give them credit for. Just imagine a small flock of these guys squabbling over bread crumbs at the park or zipping after mosquitoes above your backyard barbeque.
Or more chilling—imagine the shadow of Quetzalcoatlus engulfing your SUV as you motor across Route 66. Let’s hope you remembered to fill the gas tank in Amarillo.
*Correction, Jan. 4, 2016: This post originally misstated that animals in both the Pteranodon and Rhamphorhynchus genera as long-tailed. Only Rhamphorhynchus had long tails.
Electroejaculation Is an Undignified but Efficient Way to Save Endangered Species
There may be no species closer to the black brink of extinction than the largest freshwater turtle on Earth, the Yangtze giant softshell.
Only four of these critically endangered reptiles are left in existence, due to habitat loss, pollution, and hunting. Turtle bones and shells are also popular in the alternative medicine trade, where they are purported to cure everything from Parkinson’s disease to incongruities between one’s yin and yang. (Note: They do not.)
Just one of the remaining animals is female. Scientists have access to only one male softshell turtle. (The other two males are in Vietnam and unavailable for complex political reasons.) That male suffered a horrific battle wound in his youth, leaving the highly specialized tip of his penis mangled to the point of near uselessness.
Every year, scientists watch as the male mounts the female, who then goes on to lay hundreds upon hundreds of eggs. Each clutch is a potential life raft for the species, a chance at salvation. But time after time, the orbs go to rot in the ground, unfertilized—a pit of broken promises, a nest of missed connections.
Given these circumstances, it is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the species hinges on the ability of scientists to bring this male softshell turtle to climax and use his seed to artificially inseminate the lone female. And for this, they will employ something called electroejaculation.
Let’s start by first acknowledging that electroejaculation is probably the most absurd word ever cobbled into the English language, a word that seems born out of William S. Burroughs’ typewriter, not the wildlife conservation movement. But you can’t argue the term’s descriptiveness.
Put simply, electroejaculation is the name for when you insert a probe into an animal’s rectum and deliver electrical pulses to the nerves responsible for erection and ejaculation, causing the male to ejaculate semen. Veterinarians and breeders do this to check the virility of livestock. Conservationists and zookeepers use electroejaculation to assist in selective breeding and artificial insemination.
And while this all sounds very much like a Tesla-made torture device, it’s for a good cause. Let me give you a short list of the animals electroejaculation has been used to obtain semen from, many of which are endangered species whose populations are being enhanced with captive breeding projects: cheetahs, black-footed ferrets, Siberian tigers, Galapagos tortoises, agouti, camels, chinchillas, peccaries, Iberian red deer, Spanish ibex, brindled gnu, Japanese black bears, African elephants, giant pandas, macaques, and domestic cats.
Now, some of you may be wondering about the ethics of flooding another animal’s colon with electricity. For starters, is it painful? Because it sounds painful.
To find out, I called up a large-animal veterinarian named John Parks, who uses electroejaculation to test the health and reproductive potential of bulls and stallions.
“It doesn’t really hurt,” says Parks. “It’s more of a weird sensation, kind of like those buzzers people used to wear on their hands.”
Well, uh, ahem … how does he know?
Parks says it’s pretty standard to have veterinary students hold the probe in their hands and then turn the sucker on. Nobody screams or sues, but it gives the students a better idea of what they’re shoving up a bull’s tuckus.
(In case you’re wondering, electroejaculation can be used on humans, too, specifically for those with spinal injuries. Of course, like virtually everything else imaginable, some also use electrostimulation recreationally.)
The nerves in question here are extremely sensitive, so it doesn’t take a whole lot of juice to get them tuned up. Though this isn’t to say getting an animal to ejaculate by way of electricity is as easy as flipping a switch. The electroejaculation machines used by most vets, like the Lane Pulsator preferred by Parks, come equipped with programs that produce a series of increasingly intense pulses. Too much stimulation and the nerves become unresponsive to electrical advances.
“Each animal is an individual,” says Parks. “Some animals respond very early in the series of the program, and others respond kind of late.”
Veterinarians have other ways to extract semen from a bull. You can use digital manipulation, a technical term for a hand job. Or you can plunge your forearm into the animal’s rectum and massage the nerves manually. You can also get the bull to mount a female and then guide his erect penis into an artificial vagina, but that increases the chances of injury to the animals or the artificial vagina-holder.
In wildlife conservation, still more problems arise. An elephant’s penis, for instance, responds to stimulation by flailing about like one of those inflatable dancy things you find outside car dealerships. In nature, this is simply how the elephant manages to insert his penis, which is more than 3 feet long, into the female’s vagina. But under controlled conditions, this penile pummeling makes digital stimulation nearly impossible. It’s also rather dangerous for anyone standing within a penis-length of the animal, as evidenced by the researcher now known on the Internet as the guy who got a black eye from an elephant penis.
Field collections from wild animals are usually done while animals are anesthetized. And since the animals can’t remain knocked out for long, time becomes a factor and electroejaculation is a handy shortcut.
Obviously, scientists would prefer that animals reproduce naturally, but this isn’t always as easy as plopping a male and a female in the same enclosure with a bowl of spaghetti. Some animals only reproduce at certain times of the year or undergo complex courtship rituals that can be cussed up by living in captivity. Pandas are the most infamous example of this problem, which is why there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to “panda pornography.”
Sometimes, electroejaculation and artificial insemination just make sense from a logistical point of view.
“It is much easier to transport semen than the entire animal,” says Justine O’Brien, the scientific director at the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Reproductive Research Center.
This becomes especially important for animals like the rhinoceros. Wild populations continue to get gunned down by poachers seeking the animal’s stupidly valuable horn. Some believe rhino horn can cure everything from gout and snake bite to devil possession. (Note: It does not.) Captive rhinos represent a genetic savings account for the species. For instance, there are currently 197 southern white rhinos in North America, but captive breeding success has been lackluster. Fewer than 20 percent of the animals that were born here have gone on to reproduce.
By using electroejaculation and artificial insemination, O’Brien and her colleagues may be better equipped to sustain the captive rhino population and contribute to reintroductions into the wild. As noted in her recent paper, these techniques even allow scientists to choose the sex of the sperm they insert, selecting for more reproductively valuable females.
Oh yeah, and there’s this: “Semen collected by this method can also be cryopreserved and stored indefinitely, allowing for males to reproduce long after they have died,” says O’Brien.
All of which brings us back to the Yangtze giant softshell turtle.
Given how many species we’ve now performed electroejaculation on, you’d think saving the softshells would be nothing a few well-placed electrodes couldn’t fix. But each time electroejaculation is used on a new species, the hardware and technique have to be modified to fit the organism. Obviously, there’s a big difference between the rectum of an elephant and that of a chinchilla. But when you go from mammals to reptiles, things get even trickier.
In softshell turtles, the reproductive anatomy of both sexes lies within a slit called the cloaca. This kitchen sink orifice is also where urine, feces, eggs, and erect penises exit or enter the body. So whatever kind of electro probe you decide to put in there, it has to allow room for the penis to emerge. Speaking of the penis:
“The penis of a softshell turtle is quite bizarre,” says Rick Hudson, a herpetologist and president of the Turtle Survival Alliance. “It has all these strange appendages that make it look like an octopus or a hydra.”
Presumably, all those bells and whistles correspond to nooks and crannies within the female’s cloaca. The truth is, says Hudson, we don’t really know. But until we figure out what’s going on with the tentacles down there, any attempts at artificial insemination will literally be a shot in the dark.
And this is what has happened. While electroejaculation has been able bypass the male’s defective apparatus and produce semen, the scientists have yet to figure out the best way to inseminate the female. Unfortunately, we are approaching the point of no return.
“We don’t know how to save and store and preserve this species’ semen or how to freeze it and reconstitute it for later use,” says Hudson. “None of that’s been worked out. So we’re learning on the world’s rarest turtle as we go. It’s rather disconcerting.”
The good news is we’re getting closer. While the last round of eggs was as infertile as ever, Hudson says they found evidence that sperm heads had lodged themselves in the egg membrane. Why they did not push through to fertilize eggs, alas, we do not know.
Both of the turtles that scientists have access to are thought to be more than 100 years old, and while we also don’t know what the maximum lifespan might be for the species, it’s clear that time is running out.
“Any time you’re electroejaculating an animal that old, everything gets kind of tense because that’s an old animal to be shocking,” says Hudson. “It’s a risk, but we have no other choices.”
I’m honestly not sure what’s more desperate—the measures or the times.
Wild Dogs Are Vicious Killers With a Surprisingly Generous Social Life
When people think of the animals of Africa, they worry about getting crushed by elephants or chased across the savannah by a pride of lions. Maybe they fear getting Mufasa-ed by wildebeest or buffalo, envenomated by black mambas, gored by hippos, or drowned by crocs.
But this is silly. The crown of bones for the most deadly animal in Africa has to go to the cuddliest looking critters of the bunch—the painted dogs.
The African painted dog looks similar enough to the tuft-tailed mutt you grew up with, but I promise you, this canine doesn’t wear Christmas sweaters. Alternately called the African wild dog, Cape hunting dog, ornate wolf, and about half a dozen other combinations of those words, Lycaon pictus is more formidable than its big ears and calico coat let on. Some just call them “the devil’s dogs,” and maybe not without cause.
“One of the reason’s why people think painted dogs are ruthless killers,” says Esther van der Meer, scientific advisor for Painted Dog Conservation, “is because of the way they disembowel their prey.”
When a scientist uses the word disembowel, it’s my duty as your Wild Things scribe to lean way in. So if you have kids or vegans nearby, you may wish to relocate or put on some headphones. Because it’s about to get all nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw up in here.
I spent a week hanging out with the crew of WildEarth.tv, a team that live-streams the happenings of the African bush onto the Web twice a day, every day. Its show Safari Live broadcasts this week during Nat Geo Wild’s Big Cat Week. (Full disclosure: Nat Geo Wild paid for my travel and lodging. I picked up the tab for the malaria meds.)
While the rest of us are forgetting to put cover sheets on our testing procedure specification reports, the crew members of WildEarth.tv are tracking leopards by urine, sticking their heads into hyena dens, and monitoring the House of Cards–like power struggles between prides of lions. And while they literally see the Big Five on a daily basis, many of them seemed most impressed by the wild dogs.
Perhaps this is because they get to experience wild dogs as they truly are—both bloodthirsty carnivores capable of stripping much larger animals down to the bone but also highly social pack animals with bizarre hierarchies that would deeply offend any Ayn Rand fans. Each side of their biology supports the other. You cannot separate the two.
Take this clip of a wild dog hunt that WildEarth.tv shot during last year’s Big Cat Week. I’ll tell you right now that it terminates in one of the bloodiest kills I’ve ever seen—the dogs eviscerate a pregnant impala and carry away its kicking fetus while the cameras roll from just a few yards away. But we can’t allow the gruesomeness of the act to overshadow the brilliance with which it is constructed. More on that in a moment. For now, just watch.
Take a deep breath. You good? OK, let’s continue.
“As much as this is not a pretty sight, it is a quick way for prey to die,” says van der Meer, “especially compared to the hours it can take lions to kill prey.”
Big cats tend to go for an animal’s windpipe, a method that can fail if the hold isn’t just so. Covering the nostrils and mouth is another way to go. And at least one pride of lions has learned how to take down elephants this way: First they slice through the elephant’s hamstrings, then collapse it with their weight while other lions clamp down on the trunk and attack the throat. All in all, you could watch Stand By Me in its entirety in the time it takes to a lion pride to suffocate an elephant.
Cheetahs, for instance, are famously prone to overheating, so you’ll often see them sitting atop a prey animal mid-kill, panting while the doomed creature kicks pitifully at the dust. Not so with the wild dogs. Because they’ve evolved to withstand high body temperatures, they have no need for a post-chase cool-down. That means that if you’re ever caught by one, you’ll likely be in half a dozen stomachs before you even know you hit the ground.
But at least you can rest assured that your carcass will be shared! Van der Meer explains that wild dogs hardly ever show aggression toward one another, and especially not while feeding. And according to studies, wild dog pups are given priority at kills as soon as they’re old enough to join the hunt. In fact, near the beginning of the video above, you can watch as one of the adult dogs leaves the hunt to bring in reinforcements, including a bunch of cuddly little pups. And this all-for-one, one-for-all attitude extends beyond the young’uns.
“Painted dogs are incredibly social creatures that take communal care of not only their puppies but also the sick and injured,” says van der Meer.
Packs can consist of anywhere between six and 20 animals and are usually headed by an alpha pair. When either member of an alpha pair dies, the pack splits up into two single-sex adult groups. Strangely, a male from the youngest sexually mature cohort, rather than the oldest, accepts alpha dog status of the male group. Alpha females retain their status for life.
This dissolution, called pack fission, allows for a peaceful transition of power while also diversifying the gene pool. Over the course of a year, each pack’s dynamic will change as new pups are born and sexually mature males join in the hopes of breeding.
Roger Burrows, of AfricanWildDogWatch.org, has a whole paper on the process, but here are a few notes that highlight the crazy inverted hierarchy of these animals: Any time alpha male status is transferred, the former alpha (if he’s still alive) remains in the pack peacefully. If the group finds orphaned males, they will adopt them. Once the orphans are sexually mature, one of them will assume control of his foster pack as alpha—again, all of this without any violence. If two breeding pairs have pups in the same season, the subordinate pair’s pups have priority over the alpha pair’s pups at kills. In other words, African painted dogs live by a code that’s basically the opposite of everything you know about capitalism, “the law of the jungle,” and your high school cafeteria.
So yes, we’re talking about an animal with the strongest bite force quotient of any living Carnivora, an animal with massive premolars designed for crunching through bones, an animal that hunts with one of the highest success rates of any predator on earth. But these are not wantonly wielded weapons of destruction. They are highly evolved tools that have allowed an animal the size of a border collie to survive on a continent full of horns and teeth and claws.
Unfortunately, despite millions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning, the future of the African paint dog looks dire. According to van der Meer, fewer than 650 breeding pairs remain. Persecution by humans is one problem, as livestock owners have tended to view the predators as vermin and shoot them on sight. The dogs are also killed unintentionally by snares, struck by vehicles, and laid low by diseases such as rabies and canine distemper. And every death counts.
“Once a pack has lost several members and pack size becomes critically low, a whole pack can become extirpated due to a decrease in hunting and reproductive success,” says van der Meer.
But far and away, the biggest problem facing Lycaon pictus today is habitat loss. The whole of the remaining population now survives on just 9.4 percent of the species’ historical range. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed the wild dog as endangered since 1990—and the population is still decreasing. African wild dogs are a species in its twilight, and one often ignored by the flashcards and picture books we use to teach our kids about wildlife.
From peaceful power transfers and pup-rearing to the drive-by disembowelings that have made the animals infamous, the African wild dogs’ complexity just makes the predators all the more magnificent.
The Good Dinosaur Should Have Let Dinosaurs Evolve
The Good Dinosaur is a weird little movie. Despite the animated film’s immense budget and the sweeping vistas of Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah that serve as the backdrop for the alternate history tale, it’s really a small, simple story of “a boy and his dog,” only this time the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a boy. All the plot points will be familiar to anyone who has watched The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Old Yeller, or White Fang, yet the familiar elements manage to come together well in this dinosaurian mashup of a well-worn yarn.
But there was one fundamental aspect of The Good Dinosaur that kept grating against the scientifically focused part of my brain. The movie’s opening conceit is that the mass extinction of 66 million years ago never happened. The massive asteroid that sparked the great die-off missed, and so the reign of the nonavian dinosaurs continued unabated. Pixar basically bought itself another 66 million years of evolutionary history to play with and then it squandered the opportunity.
There are plenty of paleontological nitpicks to be made about the movie. Poor Arlo, our herbivore dinosaur hero, was given forelimbs that bend the wrong way, in the opposite direction from every other dinosaur and four-limbed vertebrate that has ever lived. And while I can get that the move was done for aesthetics, the way the Tyrannosaurus cowboys gallop borders on disturbing. The carnivores keep their torsos stiff as the rest of their body bounds along, almost as if they’re riding mounts which happens to be themselves. The list could go on, to which the natural and reasonable response would be “It’s just a children’s movie!” But I still can’t shake the feeling of disappointment that Pixar decided to give us goofy, cartoonish versions of dinosaurs based on outdated notions from the 20th century, rather than actually playing out the consequences of the world it created.
The movie’s mammals underscore the problem. Hiding in the nooks and crannies of The Good Dinosaur’s world are little fuzzballs that don’t belong to any known species. They’re supposed to be new critters that evolved under the claws of the dinosaurs. This fits what we would expect if Arlo’s kind stayed large and in charge for another 66 million years. Even though mammals during the real Age of Dinosaurs diversified into an array of forms similar to today’s flying squirrels, beavers, anteaters, and more, the largest, Repenomamus, was only the size of a badger. And while the movie applies this effect unevenly—humans would never have evolved if dinosaurs remained dominant—the novel minibeasts Pixar created for The Good Dinosaur are a fun extension of the film’s setup. So why weren’t the same evolutionary consequences applied to the dinosaurs?
The Good Dinosaur’s major characters bear more resemblance to the giant models the Sinclair Oil Company floated down the Hudson for the 1964 World’s Fair than what paleontologists currently know about the creatures. Arlo and his family are variations on the standard “Brontosaurus” body plan, the eccentric collector Forrest Woodbush is a Styracosaurus, Butch and his family are Tyrannosaurus, and so on. So even though mammals have continued to adapt and evolve during the 66 million years of this alternate history, dinosaurs have either stagnated or reverted to previous body types while becoming smarter. Unfortunately, we never meet a dinosaurian naturalist to explain what the heck is actually going on.
As far as I can tell, evolutionary imagination was sacrificed in favor of nostalgia. This is obvious from the opening scene. Long-necked sauropods sprawl in a Cretaceous bog, lazily chewing soft vegetation as they slowly raise their necks from the quagmire. Given that Pixar is currently back under the Disney umbrella, this has to be a callback to Fantasia or the ExxonMobil-sponsored Universe of Energy ride in Epcot Center, which I badgered my parents to take me to see the moment I first stepped foot in Disney World. Even though Pixar movies are ostensibly for today’s kids, they’re shaped by the experiences of their parent’s generation, and that includes dopey-looking dinosaurs.
Maybe the creators of The Good Dinosaur decided that inventing new dinosaurs, as they should have done, would be too jarring. They may have thought that we can only recognize dinosaurs as what they were, but not think of them as real animals subject to evolutionary pressures just like every other organism. (And maybe that has something to do with why the uber-religious are ruffled by the fact that birds are living dinosaurs.) But imagine the world Pixar could have created. We now know that many dinosaurs—even the fearsome tyrannosaurs—had fluffy plumage. Given how many of the movie’s dinosaurs worry about the onset of winter, wouldn’t it have made sense for them to evolve downy coats to help insulate them from the biting chill of the high Western plains? Or, given all the farmwork involved in the movie, why not have descendants of Velociraptor-like dinosaurs that evolved to use claw and beak to make tools the way some crows do today?
I don’t know why Hollywood is afraid of the new dinosaurs and feathered dinosaurs in particular. This isn’t unique to The Good Dinosaur. We’ve been told that the dinosaurs of Jurassic World couldn’t be brought into accord with science because it’d break continuity, even though it would have been easy enough to write a scientist explaining how bird DNA had replaced frog genes to plug all those holes in the de-extinction process. And now we have The Good Dinosaur, whose only feathery dinosaurs are a pack of hillbilly raptors who make Cletus the Slack-Jawed Jokel look like subtle satire by comparison. I don’t understand the impulse or the reasoning that dinosaurs must always serve nostalgia first. Some of them are still here, continuing to change as they flit about our world, but in film we seem to be more comfortable relegating them to the fetid swamps of childhood memory.
Why We (and Google) Still Love Lucy
Today’s Google Doodle is a lovely animation celebrating the anniversary of the discovery of Lucy, a 3.18-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil at the Hadar research site in the Afar region of Ethiopia.
On Nov. 24, 1974, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and a student, Tom Gray, discovered a forearm bone on a walk back to their car after a long day of fossil hunting, a find that led to a two-week excavation and the discovery of hundreds of bones and fragments that made up 40 percent of a complete skeleton. They named it Lucy.
Since then, our knowledge of human evolution—and our family tree—has expanded greatly. We know of more than 20 different hominid species, including as many as eight in Lucy’s genus, Australopithecus. And yet, Lucy is still arguably the most famous specimen. Why?
At the time, Lucy was the most complete hominin fossil on record. It can be hard for casual observers to understand how scientists can announce a new species based on a skull, or even on a collection of jawbones, but Lucy could give us a real and easily comprehended glimpse into our past. She was the first to provide evidence that walking on two legs evolved before our larger brains. (And yes, Lucy is a “she.” While the story goes that her name came from the fact that “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” blared repeatedly in camp while Johanson and Gray celebrated their discovery, research determined that she was female based on her pelvic bone and sacrum.)
Today, Lucy’s fame makes her an important and valuable icon to help us understand other discoveries. In 2005, a team led by Yohannes Haile-Selassie found a partial afarensis skeleton at the Woronso-Mille research area less than 40 miles from where Lucy was discovered. At 3.6 million years old, “Kadanuumuu” is about 400,000 years older than Lucy, but he was quickly dubbed “Lucy’s great grandfather.”
Other notable afarensis fossils—Lucy’s kin—include the famous Laetoli footprints that a team led by Mary Leakey discovered in 1978 in Tanzania. These footprints indicated that afarensis had feet that were more like humans than apes and that they walked much like we did. And one year after discovering Lucy, Johanson found 200 specimens from at least 13 individuals that became known as the First Family.
Just last May, Haile-Selassie, a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, named a new species called Australopithecus deyiremeda that is notable because, at 3.3 million to 3.5 million years old, it was living in Ethiopia at the same time as afarensis. Lucy had family, and she also had neighbors.
Cats’ Internet Antics Belie Their Inner Narcissism, and They’d Eat You if They Could
Excerpted from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz. Out now from Coffee House Press.
I don’t hate all cats. I like only one. Her name is Aligato.
Aligato is my neighbor’s cat, and even though she craps in my yard as if she owned the joint, I’ve come to enjoy her charms.
She stays out late, she prowls. One of her eyes is either gone or permanently shut because, well, she’s a bit of a brawler. When she does come on my porch, she always says hello and looks me right in the eye with her one good eye. She likes being petted, and she even comes when she is called. She is, in other words, a dog.
So my favorite cat—well, actually the only cat I like—is really a dog in a cat suit. The rest of them, the millions on the Internet, at my friend’s apartment in the city, in the cat lady’s house up the street, I do not like. It’s not that I hate them, it is only that I return their indifference. Cat owners lavish love on their pets and are convinced they are receiving something in return. What exactly are they getting back? A rub against the leg or hand? It means the cat has an itch, nothing more.
I asked Ben Huh, king of all Internet cats and the dark overlord of I Can Has Cheezburger, why, with all of the tropes, memes, and wild critters on the web, that cats came to rule. He said it was very simple.
“The Internet is a playpen for cats where you never have to smell or clean the litter box,” he said.
But why love something that won’t love you back, whether it is on the Internet or in your home?
“Cats are like having a teenager. They just look at you over and over and say, ‘Can I have more stuff?’ ” he said. “They don’t really do anything; they lay about, so it’s hard to tell cats apart from teenagers, except teenagers hang out at malls more. And yet people still love their teenagers. And their cats.”
I’m not unmoved by the sight of a cat on the Web playing the piano, but unless they are going to kick into a decent version of Chopin’s First Ballade, Op. 23, there is a going to be a limit to my amazement by this time.
All other domesticated animals that humans adore are working animals. It’s a historical fact that cats were once prized for their ability to eliminate rodents, their one domestic chore, but most cats I know are on strike, content with being on the Meow Mix dole.
Cats were domesticated not for their usefulness but because they were mooches and hung around humans, acting all cute and cuddly just for the snacks. Dogs save people, sniff out bombs, pull sleds, herd sheep, guide blind people. Cats are mostly good at finding a sunny spot in the apartment and doing a series of lazy stretches that would not pass muster in a beginner’s yoga class. On the Internet, the cat’s greatest hits usually show them doing stupid stuff involving aquariums, televisions, and mirrors, which aren’t really tricks so much as cats expressing their inner aggression and narcissism.
Yes, in most developed countries there are more cats than children, but as soon as we figure out how to train a 2-year-old to poop in a box and are able to leave them home alone for hours on end, you can bet those percentages will reverse.
Whenever cat lore comes up, their advocates will always mention that they were deified and mummified in Egypt, but let’s remember that those pharaoh cat lovers enslaved thousands to build cats’ pyramids, actual humans who were treated far less well. And throughout history, who were witches always hanging out with? Oh yeah, cats. The witch doesn’t want a friendly labradoodle around; she wants a black cat as a like-minded familiar as she goes about her evil deeds.
In popular culture, the first icons that pop to my mind catwise are Garfield, Catwoman, and Cat Stevens, all of whom have rather conflicted reputations. And who is the big star on the Web these days in the feline world? Oh yeah, Grumpy Cat has 8 million likes on Facebook, all for her specialty of giving mean looks to everyone, which frankly doesn’t strike me as remarkable—cats do that all the time.
I am not immune to the charms of the feline form. Cats, as the Internet has taught us, are cute because they are both ferocious and adorable. They are predators rendered in miniature with all the tools of a killer—fangs, claws, a mighty pounce when they are not too fat—but they are harmless because of their size. That means that their hunting instincts are now aimed at rodents, hapless amphibians, and bugs. But make no mistake: When they dream, they dream large, of the days when they and their ancestors ruled the earth, loping along, scanning for food and hitting the afterburners when they saw prey.
And if those dreams came true, if evolution reversed and they again became big and ferocious, the relationship with humans would both change and, in some ways, be the same. When you come through the door at the end of the day, your cat sees one thing: food. It knows that it is time to eat, and you will obediently get its kibble and put some nasty wet food on top because, well, you are its slave.
If cats suddenly woke up saber-tooth size, they would still see food when you walked through the door, except you would be dinner. You don’t like to dwell on it, but you know if they were big enough, they would snack on you as if you were a field mouse. They might toy with you a bit, letting you make a feckless attempt to flee before they gathered you back toward their hungry maw with a swipe of their paw.
Remember Timothy Treadwell, the guy who thought he was a friend to all grizzly bears in Grizzly Man? They were not his friends, as Werner Herzog, the director of the film, says in the narration. Looking at Treadwell’s filmed footage of his bear friends, he says, “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.”
There is no such thing as the secret world of cats, or if there is, they own you instead of the other way around. Be honest with yourself: How many times have you looked into your cat’s eyes and seen not the wonders of the universe but “a half-bored interest in food”? It’d eat you if it could, and seeing as it can’t, it just stares at you until you come up with something they can.
All the anthropomorphizing and speculating you do about what is in your cat’s little noggin? For naught. Your cat’s brain weighs under an ounce, is the size of an avocado pit, and contains just as many deep thoughts. Cats have mastered the art of looking wise, but that uses up all the gray matter they have—which reminds me of a boss I once had, but that’s a much longer story.
Cats are different than us. You and I might hear a songbird and delight in God’s creation. A cat will hear the same thing and do its best to kill and eat that bird, putting an end to the music and the creature that made it. Yes, they are expressing their inner, feral nature, but let’s face it, any animal that will kill a pretty bird singing a song is pretty damn gangster.
My dog Charlie, a blond lab and girl, by the way, chases squirrels but does not catch them, a perfect version of the suburban wild kingdom. Every night she waits by the door and has a single question when I walk in: “Am I loving you enough right now?” She stares right into my face as she all but breaks herself in wagging with excitement. When she settles down and I ask for a kiss, she will stop what she is doing—unless she is eating—and come over to me. She will look up at my face adoringly and slowly place one paw and then the other on my leg and hoist herself up and give me one delicate lick on the nose. And then she sits back down. When is the last time you saw a cat do that? Put that in your Internet browser and smoke it.
You could say it is because my dog has no taste in companions, to which I would say, exactly. What I want in an animal companion is blind loyalty, unconditional love, and steady adoration.
So, in my family, we are dog people. That does not mean that if someone dropped a box of kittens on our doorstep we would ignore their mewling or their helpless adorableness. We would find a way to help them survive and find homes, but not ours, because kittens inevitably become cats, and that’s where the problems begin.
I should say I don’t mind looking at cats on the Internet, in part because they are ubiquitous and can’t be avoided, and in part because I think that’s where cats should live, on the Internet, imprisoned by my browser and one click away from being banished.
So, my little furry friends, go forth and multiply. Infest every corner of the Web as is your nature. Chase that laser light, squeeze yourself into a glass bowl, freak out at the toy robot that your owner has set before you. YouTube is waiting, and people imprisoned in office cubes everywhere depend on you, cats of the Internet, to bring a moment of respite to the quotidian tasks that are on other applications minimized until the boss walks by.
We will continue to click because it is in our nature. We might even organize a film festival at a cutting-edge museum so that your splendors, your unique charms, can finally find the widescreen presentation and communal audience your charms deserve. But if we meet offline in the real world, don’t expect me to ask for an autograph. I’ve interviewed and written dozens of stories about famous people who are riveting on-screen. They are, with very few exceptions, huge disappointments IRL. And some are monsters, drunk on narcissism and transfixed by their own reflection in the faces of those who adore them.
You, cats of the Internet, may be hilarious and full of frolic when the camera is on, but once the lights go down and the set is struck, you are still a cat. I know who and what you are. As do you, Mr. Cat. Just don’t tell the others, and you will be fine.
This essay is reprinted by permission from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by David Carr.