Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Animal of the Week August 30, 2005 -- Mantis kills bird; Dostoevsky sues Hayward

Bonjour tout le monde!
Now, last week I came in for some flack for the brevity of my email...there was me thinking that the delightful picture was enough. But it seems that some of you actually look forward to this drivel! Who am I to disappoint you? This week's animal is Mantis religiosa (European Mantis). There are over 180 species of mantis in the world, but the European one, plain and green, is as good as any. You may have seen them when you've been in warm parts of Europe, stalking shakily about like a camden drunk, trembling as a leaf so as not to frighten their insect (or not, see photo) prey. They are also widespread in North America (again see photo), having been introduced in the late 18th or early 19th century and spreading across the country like tuberculosis through the native Americans. In the picture, the mantis has caught an unusual dinner, stabbing it through the chest with it's left forelimb. As well as their piety, mantises are famed for sexual cannibalism, the male commonly being decapitated during the act. The nuptial gift of his corporeal being might increase the fitness of the female, thus enabling more offspring to survive. Anyway, by way of an apology for last week's lack of verbosity, below is a piece of fiction about mantises that I knocked up this morning. I hope you enjoy. God! This week I've got everything, blood, sex, violence, literature...

The Brothers Mantis
Alexey Fyodorovitch Mantis was the third larva of Fyodor Pavlovitch Mantis, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic instar, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this "bug"- for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own leaf- was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless. But he was one of those senseless insects who are very well capable of looking after their worldly ichor, and, apparently, after nothing else. Fyodor Pavlovitch, for instance, began with next to nothing; his estate was of the smallest leaves; he ran to dine at other men's crickets, and fastened on them as a tick, yet at his death it appeared that he had a hundred thousand elytra in hard chitin. At the same time, he was all his life one of the most senseless, fantastical mantids in the whole garden. I repeat, it was not stupidity- the majority of these fantastical insects are shrewd and intelligent enough- but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it.
He was married twice, and had three larvae, the eldest, Dmitri, by his first wife who tried to eat him after mating so he left her, and two, Ivan and Alexey, by his second who had her mandibles wired shut. Fyodor Pavlovitch's first wife, Adelaida Ivanovna, belonged to a fairly rich and distinguished noble swarm, also mantises in our district, the Miusovs. How it came to pass that a larva, who was also a beauty, and moreover one of those vigorous intelligent girls, so common in this garden, but sometimes also to be found in the neighbour’s, could have mated such a worthless, puny weakling, as we all called him, I won't attempt to explain. I knew a young mantis of the last "romantic" generation who after some years of an enigmatic passion for a cockroach, whom she might quite easily have eaten at any moment, invented insuperable obstacles to their union, and ended by throwing herself one stormy night into a rather deep and rapid puddle from a high twig, almost a branch, and so perished, entirely to satisfy her own carapace, and to be like Shakespeare's Odonata. Indeed, if this twig, a chosen and favourite spot of hers, had been less picturesque, if there had been a prosaic flat bit of moss in its place, most likely the suicide would never have taken place. This is a fact, and probably there have been not a few similar insects in the last two or three gardens. Adelaida Ivanovna Miusov's action was similarly, no doubt, an echo of other people's ideas, and was due to the irritation caused by lack of mental freedom. She wanted, perhaps, to show her feminine independence, to override class distinctions and the despotism of her swarm. And a pliable imagination persuaded her, we must suppose, for a brief moment, that Fyodor Pavlovitch, in spite of his parasitic infection, was one of the bold and ironical spirits of that progressive epoch, though he was, in fact, an ill-natured mantis and nothing more. What gave the marriage piquancy was that it was preceded by an egg sack, and this greatly captivated Adelaida Ivanovna's fancy. Fyodor Pavlovitch's position at the time made him specially eager for any such enterprise, for he was passionately anxious to make a career in one way or another. To attach himself to a good tree and obtain a dowry was an alluring prospect. As for pheremonal attraction it did not exist apparently, either in the bride or in him, in spite of Adelaida Ivanovna's beauty. This was, perhaps, a unique case of the kind in the life of Fyodor Pavlovitch, who was always of a voluptuous temper, and ready to run after any well-turned tarsus on the slightest encouragement. She seems to have been the only larva who made no particular appeal to his senses.
Immediatley after the egg sack Adelaida Ivanovna discerned in a flash that she had no feeling for her husband but hunger. The marriage accordingly showed itself in its true colours with extraordinary rapidity. Although the family accepted the mating pretty quickly and apportioned the scuttle-away bride her dowry, the mantis and mate began to lead a most disorderly life, and there were everlasting scenes between them. It was said that the young larva showed incomparably more generosity and dignity than Fyodor Pavlovitch, who, as is now known, got hold of all her mealy bugs up to twenty five thousand bugs as soon as she received them, so that those insects were lost to her forever. The little village and the rather fine town leaves, which formed part of her nuptial gift he did his utmost for a long time to transfer to his name, by means of some deed of conveyance. He would probably have succeeded, merely from her moral fatigue and desire to get rid of him, and from the contempt and loathing he aroused by his persistent and shameless pumping of air through his spiracles. But, fortunately, Adelaida Ivanovna's family intervened and circumvented his greediness. It is known for a fact that frequent fights took place between the husband and wife, but rumour had it that Fyodor Pavlovitch did not eat his wife but was eaten by her, for she was a hot-tempered, bold, dark-browed, impatient mantis, possessed of remarkable physical strength. Finally, she left the house and ran away from Fyodor Pavlovitch with a destitute entomology student, leaving Mitya, a larva of three years old, in her husband's tarsi. Immediately Fyodor Pavlovitch introduced a regular harem into the house, and abandoned himself to orgies of drunkenness. In the intervals he used to stalk all over the province, complaining tearfully to each and all of Adelaida Ivanovna's having left him, going into details too disgraceful for a mantis to mention in regard to his own married life. What seemed to gratify him and flatter his self-love most was to play the ridiculous part of the cannibalised husband, and to parade his woes with embellishments.
"One would think that you'd got a new instar, Fyodor Pavlovitch, you seem so pleased in spite of your sorrow," grasshoppers said to him. Many even added that he was glad of a new comic part in which to play the bumble bee, and that it was simply to make it funnier that he pretended to be unaware of his ludicrous position. But, who knows, it may have been simplicity. At last he succeeded in getting on the track of his scuttle-away wife. The poor mate turned out to be in Petersburg, where she had gone with her entomology student, and where she had thrown herself into a life of complete emancipation. Fyodor Pavlovitch at once began bustling about, making preparations to go to Petersburg, with what object he could not himself have said. He would perhaps have really gone; but having determined to do so he felt at once entitled to fortify himself for the journey by another bout of reckless drinking. And just at that time his first-mate’s family received the news of her death in Petersburg. She had died quite suddenly in a garden, according to one story, of roadrunner, or as another version had it, of starvation. Fyodor Pavlovitch was drunk when he heard of his mate's death, and the story is that he ran out into the street and began shouting with joy, raising his tarsi to Heaven: "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace," but others say he wept without restraint like a little larva, so much so that people were sorry for him, in spite of the repulsion he inspired. It is quite possible that both versions were true, that he rejoiced at his release, and at the same time wept for her who released him. As a general rule, insects, even the winged, are much more naive and simple-ganglioned than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Animal of the Week August 22, 2005 -- Photo of yo mumma

Sweet baby non-religious reference point! What in the name of Angela Lansbury happened to your face?
Pygathrix roxellana (Rhinopithecus roxellana, golden snub-nosed monkey).

Monday, August 15, 2005

Animal of the Week August 15, 2005 -- A very very big shark indeed, but extinct, phew

Last Monday evening, I was watching CSI Miami when there was a peculiar percussive sound. I looked up and saw on the ceiling a large round beetle, on closer inspection it turned out to be a harlequin (animal of the week March 21, 2005)!!! First thing on Tuesday morning, I logged my sighting with the harlequin survey (http://www.harlequin-survey.org/).

This week's animal is a little bigger, welcome Carcharodon megalodon (megalodon). At something approaching 15 m long and 20 tons we should be pretty glad that this close relative of the great white doesn't still exist. Until about 1·5 million years ago, warms oceans were home to the largest meat eating sharks that ever lived. Because sharks have cartilagenous skeletons, the fossil record of megalodon is rather poor, but their teeth survive in abundance. Although there's not much evidence to go on, the size of the teeth and their similarity to those of great whites suggests that megalodon was a scaled up Jaws. Likely preying on whales—the babies of which they could have swallowed whole—it is difficult to imagine what caused the extinction of this super predator. The loss of warm tropical seas due to continental drift may have played a part. But maybe the evolution of warm-blooded, highly smart killer whales turned the tables on the fishy leviathan. Although some people reckon there may still be a few megalodon left in the depths, this seems unlikely. But these people might be pleased to know that the director of Speed, Jan de Bont, is working on a film, Meg, due out some time next year about such a conceit, the rest of us will probably remain indifferent (if I thought there were going to be more cows in tornados as seen in de Bont's Twister, well, I might be more enthusiastic).

Monday, August 08, 2005

Animal of the Week August 8, 2005 -- You are!

May your gods bless you one and all,

As the UK gay-pride season comes to a close, with a joyous day for many on Saturday in our gayest of towns, Brighton, it's time to wheel out a gay animal. Although there are many instances of actual gayness in the animal kingdom, from lesbian seagulls to rams with proclivities for other rams, this animal is rather symbolically gay. Welcome, Columba mayeri (Mauritius Pink Pigeon). In the early 1990s there were fewer than 20 of these birds left in the wild, but captive breeding programmes have established a much larger and more robust population of 350 to 400. Brought to the brink of extinction due to the classic combination of limited range, habitat destruction, batty behaviour, and introduced predators (mongooses, rats, cats, macaques) the remarkable recovery of the population is likely due to an interesting facet of population genetics. Animals that live on remote volcanic islands are nearly always descended from a very few founder individuals, and to have established a population with intense inbreeding they must have very few deleterious genes in the whole population. So, after a population crash, whereas other animals would have trouble bouncing back as inbreeding exposes lethal combinations of bad genes that have been hidden in the large population, island populations need not worry because they don't have any bad genes in the first place. Either that, or they cottoned onto the turkey-basting techniques shown to them in the captive breeding programmes. This week's picture is of Brad and Randy who are watching an episode of Will and Grace, their conversation is going a bit like this:

Brad "Show me more Karen, they should have more of Karen and less of Grace."

Randy "Wouldn't it be great if they just gave Karen a show on her own, with Bette Midler in it, soundtracked by Cher"

Brad and Randy photographed staring into the middle distance in rapt contemplation of such a fabulous concept.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Animal of the Week August 1, 2005 -- Camel spiders of Iraq

Hello Animal Freaks!
This week's animal of the week is Galeodes arabs (sun spider, camel spider, wind spider, wind scorpion). The most common question people ask when I start talking about Animal of the Week is "will you shut up about this for just five seconds?" Another common question is "will you ever do a made-up animal?" And, like Julia Roberts' character in Pretty Woman with regards to kissing on the lips, I say "no, it's one of my rules". Camel spiders are therefore an interesting case; a few years ago troops in the middle east derived fun in the homely way of mocking up photos of giant spiders that ate human flesh. This urban (desert?) legend did the rounds on the world wide web and were emailed around, and everyone thought there was a foot-long, ten-legged spider biting chunks out of people and camels. Someone mentioned this to me the other day and they still thought it true! Durr, spiders don't have ten legs! Durr, spiders don't grow to a foot long! Durr, that's not even a spider, it's a solifugid? These arachnids aren't spiders. They don't even really have ten legs, the first pair of limbs are large, modified mouth parts (pedipalps). And they don't grow to a foot long. Galeodes arabs is one of the biggest with a 5 inch leg span and 2 inch body. Here is a real picture, without scale you can't tell it's not a foot long, but take my word for it, it's not, I wouldn't lie, not to you.