Evolution has spun off some extreme oddities, as an article in Cracked pointed out this week.
The article, titled 7 Species That Got Screwed Over by Mother Nature, is bawdy and indiscrete, so let the reader be warned (typical territory for Cracked). 

 I was sucked in because #5 on their list happens to be my beloved kakapo. They mention its lack of a 'fight or flight' response, although they fail to cite its propensity for gleefully skirt-chasing random zoologists and their cranial anatomy.

(I still haven't been able to get in any wet-work on my Last Chance to See project- the temperatures seems to be taking a nose dive into the single digits every time I've got a couple days to work. I really need to insulate and heat my studio space).
Other misfits on the list include the tunicate worm (essentially consumes its own brain as it matures from a mobile larva to a sessile adult form), and the Kiwi bird (lays an egg that’s 1/2 of its own body length and mass), as well as spotted hyenas, black vultures, termites and honeybees.

It’s a pretty funny article… but there’s always a snarky superiority in write-ups like this that gets under my skin. For one thing, it’s easy to forget how utterly odd and superficially dysfunctional human beings are.

Forget the fact that we have mediocre eyesight, an abysmal sense of smell, and the auditory sensitivity of a turnip. There doesn’t seem to be a single environment- terrestrial, arboreal, aquatic- where we move with any fluidity or grace (ignoring the bar-stool, recliner and golf cart, of course).

The standard narrative in evolutionary biology frames the human animal as an atrophying, generalist platform for a hyper-advanced brain and a nimble, manipulating hand.  In learning to use our brains and fingers, we lost the need for any focused physicality. We’re somewhere along the pathway to this…
I’d always bought into this idea… but then I read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.

Born to Run is one of the most joyful, paradigm-shifting works of non-fiction I’ve read in ages. On the surface, it’s one man’s exploration of the global ‘natural born running’ community. Along the way, however, the author touches on…

  • An indigenous people- the Tarahumara-  who subsist in remote, desiccated Mexico (Copper Canyon) and appear to be the best long distance runners on the face of the planet.
  • The reasons why cushioned running shoes are not only useless for running, but actually promote injury in runners. 50+ years of global marketing and billions of dollars in sales based on a lie.
  • The weird, unlikely histories of long distance runners across recent history.

Actually, I can’t stress this last point enough. The book is front loaded with some of the most quirky, gloriously non-conformist characters ever to traverse the written page, and they’re all real. Just as one example, McDougall’s point of entry into Tarahumara culture was a Chris McCandless-type character known regionally as Caballo Blanco (the White Horse)- a  gringo ex-pat and ex-prize fighter who vanished into Copper Canyon and travels between its dusty towns like a dreadlocked ghost.

It’s McDougall’s commentary on human evolution that really fascinated me, however.

In a nutshell, McDougall claims (and it’s supported by a front page article in Nature) that human beings are not atrophied, squishy brain-baskets with hands. We're sophisticated physical engines designed for one specific purpose- succeeding at the long-distance pursuit of cursorial mammals on the high plains.

I won’t break down the argument in too much detail- read the book. However, there are some wonderful sidelines the book explores in the process of making its case. Just a few examples…

  • There are still indigenous societies in the world that will pursue and kill fleet mammals like antelope over a 20-40 mile chase. The Kalahari bushmen are one example. The human biomechanical design appears to be optimal for this.

  • The average duration- in miles- of such a hunt equates almost perfectly to the distance of a modern marathon.

  • The end of the last Ice Age coincided with an explosive increase in availability of mid-size, fleet footed game. Coincidentally, this was the approximate epoch where Homo sapiens outcompeted Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man) for good.

    Note- Neanderthals probably had a cranial capacity that equaled or exceeded ours, as well as superior physical prowess on most counts.  There are various theories as to why we out-competed our evolutionary cousins, but we  certainly didn’t outstrip them because we were 'smarter' or stronger. In fact- there's a real possibility that we won the evolutionary lottery because we were able to run down elands on the open Savannah.

This was a glorious revision on my whole perspective on humans as physical animals. We may have lost our way, bogged down in high fructose corn syrup and wed to the barcalounger, but we’re finely honed to a specific purpose, if only we can remember.

It makes me think about how little we understand the role that other organisms play in the ecological web. How little we comprehend the eons of natural selection, cataclysm, competition and niche adaptation that have produced a kakapo or spotted hyena.
So- while I found the Cracked article amusing, I don’t see Kiwis, termites, honeybees, or Spotted Hyenas as creatures that have been ‘screwed over’.  I love every one one of these fellow travelers. Whether you see them as avatars of a profound creative Providence or as miracles of some stochastic calculus, they’re neither accidents nor failures.

Not saying that I want to lay a 36-inch egg, mind you…

The world is an awfully crowded place. It’s easy to forget this sometimes, living in Idaho, although even here, the baleful, Californicating eyes of the human surge make my spine prickle at times.

This makes it all the more odd that we’ve somehow managed to coexist with a 8.25 ton creature so alien-looking that H.P. Lovecraft used it as his model for Cthulhu.

I was set to thinking about elephants by a nasty update from Cameroon, where conflict in nearby Chad has spilled over into a guerilla war against elephant populations in the north of that country.

This won’t be a diatribe against guerillas in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s hard to expect child warriors- possible sick from brown brown (a gunpowder laced form of cocaine popular in Northern African war zones) and adrift with cross-currents of colonialism and neglect- to feel much empathy for endangered species. Read Ishmael Beah’s searing memoir ‘A Long Way Gone’ if you need a primer on that landscape.

It’s more of a celebration of that corner of the human psyche that wants to love ‘otherness’.

It’s generally recognized that humans are drawn to wild animals that evoke the infantile. In fact, Stephen Jay Gould (the roaring crusader for all things Darwinian) published an essay on this topic titled ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse’, noting the prime rodent’s steady evolution from a basal, rat-like form to a Gerber baby with big ears.

Elephants don’t really fit the mold, though. The proportions are off… and then there’s the trunk, a sinister polyglot mating between a bristle worm and a python.
Most people have encountered the fable of the blind men and the elephant.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

For the full poem, see  ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’

The kernel of the story is the mismatched, unthinkable weirdness of elephant anatomy. School kids in western nations have been conditioned by Babar- we forget how odd the creature must have seemed to Western Europeans, acclimated to the Jersey Cow and the chicken.

It’s also hard for humanity to really anthropomorphize anything that simultaneously evokes a landslide and a tornado. Nothing that large should be able to move the way that elephants do.  There’s a reason that elephants have ploughed through endless eruptions of daub and wattle huts in Africa, ultimately imperiling their own existence. They know that they can.
Mastodons and Wooly Mammoths shared that knowledge, I’m sure, but were no match for the spears and pit traps of Paleolithic humanity in North America.  Bringing back those giants to North America would take a phenomenal breakthrough by Svante Paabo and his ancient DNA crew, as well as Pleistocene re-wilding on a grand scale.

Personally, I’m all for it… but there may be a few ranchers and gardeners in Middle America who object.

There are reasons why elephants have persisted where their ice-age brethren have been lost. Certainly, the harnessing of Asian elephants- although one step removed from domestication- has placed them in the ‘servant’ bracket in some parts of the world. This doesn’t explain Africa, however.

I’d like to think that there’s a deep response to any creature so manifestly intelligent, and so expressive of familiar emotional nuance. Tales of familial bonds, deep grief and loyalty in elephants: these archetypes are familiar to the Animal Planet crowd, and are undoubtedly a shot in the arm to international conservation efforts.

This type of response explains the stuffed barbaloot look-alikes that infest nurseries (although the one in the image to the right could have been pulled from a detox tank at a county lockup).  But I think it’s insufficient as an explanation for elephants as persistent fellow-travelers.

Maybe the bottom line is that the world- while feeling so crowded- remains larger than we realize. Maybe it’s Providence. At the very least, it’s definitely the tireless efforts of international NGOs, scientists, and underpaid game wardens in the Kalahari dust. People who love otherness. 

I have to believe that the numb inertia of the international ivory trade- and the hollow-eyed madness of post-colonial warfare are small things in comparison.

And I’d like to think maybe someday our world- or at least our shared understanding of it- will re-expand, and the geneticists and Pleistocene dreamers will bring back the mastodons back too.
This rambling entry was inspired by two superficially disconnected ‘events’- the Superbowl, and the discovery of the world’s smallest vertebrate, Paedophryne amauensis.
Let me explain
Another Superbowl, another ear-melting love-fest at the great American altar. A few random thoughts…
  1. I sure hope that the Coca Cola is writing hefty royalty checks to the Natural Resources Defense Council, because they’re sure been milking that ‘happy polar bear’ image with a vengeance.
  2. How many ways will Anheuser Busch try to re-package the same rice-flavored dishwater?  Budeiswer Platinum, I ask you?  (Mind- the fact that I even remember the product name is pretty disturbing). 
  3. It was arguably a pretty exciting, gritty sort of game… and somehow I can’t remember a single detail with any vitality. I don’t know if this says something about the atrophy in my gray matter, or my evolving feelings about football.

My mind kept wandering into strange, stream-of-consciousness cul-de-sacs. One of the oddest related to an advertisement that featured the apparent aftermath of a nuclear free for all in a major city. I have no idea what they were selling… tires perhaps… or maybe time shares on the ‘Church Universal and Triumphant’ ranch in Montana.

I loved the rain of frogs at the end of the piece however.
***Edit- it’s a Chevy commercial. I looked it up. I’m not brain-washed. Honestly.***

Copyright: Ronald and Sonya's Photostream
I don’t tend to think of frogs as particularly apocalyptical. After all, these are fragile creatures with bones like rice noodles and skin like wet silk, creatures that inhale every environmental toxin and pathogen through their epidermis.  Not to mention their relentless cuteness. If they're not staring at you off the front of someone's shirt with their big, googly eyes, they’re puffing at you with those endearing little vocal sacs.

This makes it all the more remarkable to consider the many ways in which frogs have been cast as portents of destruction.

Anyone who’s been to Sunday school is familiar with the seven plagues of Egypt. In the second plague, Moses unleashes a moving wall of frogs on the Nile Delta. My childhood bible featured a picture of an Egyptian woman picking frogs out of her falafel.  The irony is that the ancient Egyptians viewed frogs as symbols of life and rebirth. In fact, the Egyptian goddess Heqet was involved in ‘resurrecting the deceased’. The circularity of ‘religion’ and the notion of a Frog-headed messiah boggle the mind.

Frogs were cast as symbols of the devil in medieval Europe (because of their hypothetical association with witches, and because of their cameo appearances in the Book of Revelation). 

(Note- I’m ignoring a lot of positive frog imagery. The Scots, for instance, kept stone frogs in their yards as luck symbols. An old Pictish custom, apparently. The Scots have always moved to a different drummer.)

It’s impossible to talk about frog apocalypse without citing Cane Toads (Bufo marinus).  Toads, of course, are in a slightly different league than frogs, but any family member that single-handedly monkey-wrenches a entire continental ecology leaves the clan guilty by association.

(My stepkids once inadvertently terrorized our Costa-Rican host family with a shirt-full of cane toads… but that’s another story).
On a related note, one of the most potent metaphors in ecology is the classic ‘frog in the boiling pot’ story. Frogs, of course, are ectotherms (cold-blooded).  In theory, a frog placed in a kettle would blithely ignore a slow increase in temperature, to the point where it could complacently allow itself to boil to death.

I personally know no one who’s conducted this experiment (nor do I wish to know any such person).  The story has, however, informed marine biologist Daniel Pauly’s theory of ‘shifting baselines’- the idea that societies gradually acclimate to deteriorating environmental conditions.  

Finally, it’s worth mentioning an old Iranian proverb: "When the snake gets old, the frog gets him by the balls."  (See Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi). I can’t claim to understand the nuances of that particular maxim, but it sounds ominous.

The truth, of course, is that frogs ARE symbols of apocalypse… but only because they’re a mine-canary. Frogs have little effective separation from their environment. They exist in a perpetual state of osmosis, drinking every toxin, pathogen, and ray of ultraviolet light through their skin. 

Therefore, when chytrid fungus starts decimating ponds all throughout Idaho (and the world), or when chimeric, multi-legged mutant frogs start scaring school kids sick, we’d better be asking ourselves some serious questions about the root causes.

Which is why it’s all the more soul-satisfying to read about Paedophryne amauensis.

Little Paedophryne (the word literally means ‘child-like toad’) all but vanishes into the surface of a dime.  The researchers who were surveying the back corners of New Guinea initially detected it through a whispering of untraceable, insectile vocalizations. It wasn’t until they hand-filtered a couple metric tons of forest duff that the found the frogs themselves.

There are whole worlds of ramified life in places like New Guinea that we’ve only begun to catalog. Many are smaller than a dime, but there’s still the odd Saola or Northern Sierra Madre Forest Monitor Lizard out there.
Anyhow, Chevy can keep its end-times hysteria. There’s something in the discovery of a 3/10 inch frog that elicits the opposite emotion.
Ocher skies weep gray water.... while the temperature at night continue to dive into the low 20's. Not the optimal weather for working in the studio- any wet-work in clay would freeze and develop rabbit's fur. Not a good interval for moving my 'Last Chance to See/Kakapo' project forward. Instead, I'll continue with my musings on harbor seals. (Credit Kawika Chetron for the imagery
_Anyhow, I was teaching my comparative vertebrate anatomy class today. Skulls and bones week! We've got a glorious Phoca vitulina (harbor seal) skull in the lab. Somehow, the whole class got sidetracked into marine mammal stories, leading, at one point, to a discussion of one of my favorite films, 'The Secret of Roan Inish'.

(Fair disclosure- the following is adapted from some commentary that I posted on Rotten Tomatoes a few years back. It's a busy week- sue me!)

I’m a notorious sucker for most things Irish. I play the music, love the culture and the landscape. There's really nothing in my heritage to explain it either. I'm Dutch-Croatian, and my parents musical palette was basically centered on gospel, classical music, Pete Seeger, and The Prairie Home Companion. The connection i primal, however.

_ So- when I heard that John Sayles- one of my all time favorite directors- had crafted a children’s film about the Selkie legend (mythical creatures- seal-like, that can shed their skins and take human form) I felt like my head was about to explode.

You know how it feels to treasure an idea, place, or image in your soul, and then see it misfire in a film? Contrast that to the rare, transcendent joy of seeing a film actually get it right. 

_ The story starts with Fiona, a young girl living Dublin. She's first introduced as a pale, wraith of a child, wandering like a ghost through sweatshops and smoky pubs. Her father is nursing deep wounds, and has little time for the girl, but a kind publican convinces him to send Fiona to the ‘old people’ out in the West.

Fiona’s grandparents live on some unnamed stretch of the Irish west coast- perhaps Donegal, although I’m not sure. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the area, it’s a austere, uncompromising place, but still lovely, draped in rock and heather, transfixed by the boundless, stormy eye of the ocean.

For Fiona, landing with her grandparents is like a new birth. Her grandparents Hugh and Tess are gnarled and warm, suffused with local knowledge, and drenched in folklore.

_ A large part of this film revolves around Hugh sitting by the fire and relating stories and legends about Fiona’s family. This sounds dull, but far from it. Sayles has a profound respect for local knowledge and the power of myth, and this movie is his celebration of these things.

Fiona learns- first from Hugh, and later from Tadgh, her brooding , complex cousin- that her family are refugees, former occupants of a remote island in the Pacific, Roan Inish. She also learns that her youngest brother, Jaime, was ‘lost’ during a flight from said Island. Given that this film is anchored in the Selkie mystique, you can probably guess where things are going.

_ Mason Daring, a long time Sayles collaborator, is a master at crafting haunting, vibrant soundtracks that are socially and geographically grounded and integral to Sayles’ storytelling. I love the bittersweet Appalachian strains in Matewan and the earthy Zydeco in Passion Fish. I can make a more accurate assessment of the music in Roan Inish however, especially from a technical/authenticity standpoint. I play Irish music quasi-professionally, and listen to it voraciously.

Roan Inish has the best soundtrack of any Irish-themed film that I've encountered (only 'Waking Ned Devine' comes close). The tracks are beautifully played and arranged- Daring enlisted a core of respected players (such as Maire Breatnach ). I’m especially impressed by the authenticity and effectiveness of the original compositions. The music is utterly unpretentious and pure. To those who think that ‘Riverdance’ and its ilk are representative of Irish Music at its best, please go see this film.

_ Roan Inish: Two of my favorite scenes
1) The evacuation
The reason for Fiona’s family’s flight from Roan Inish is never fully articulated, but I assume it’s related to World War II. In any case, the family are depicted loaded their currachs (traditional Irish coastal fishing boats) while little Jamie sleeps near the water’s edge in his cradle- a strangely boat shaped rocker that traces its inception back to the family legend. The sky darkens, as a bodhran drum rattles in the background. The tide laps at the boat… and suddenly, Jamie is floating away through dark sheets of rain.

_ 2) Lost in the mist

Fiona, exploring a currach by a jetty, suddenly finds herself holding a cut rope, drifting through fog, surrounded by seals. It becomes manifest that she’s being guided… but the intentions of the guides are unclear.

_ Roan Inish: A few classic pieces of dialogue
“He’s not lost, he’s just off with another branch of the family”
(cousin Tadhg, referring to Jamie)

“Superstitious old man!”
(Tess, referring to Hugh’s stories about Selkies. She then banks the peat fire in the parlor, dedicating it to the blessed virgin, and to the seven bright angels that gather around the throne…)

"...and he woke to their faces above him, all women and girls. 'Is this Heaven then?' he asked..."
(Hugh- describing the reaction of a near-drowned sailor upon awaking)