Monday, June 23, 2008

Animal of the Week -- June 23, 2008

It can't possibly have escaped your attention that this week in the UK is National Insect Week -- so naturally I am going to join in the celebrations by nominating an insect as this week's animal. But what to go for? Something gaudy and noticeable, such as the swallowtail butterfly or hummingbird hawk moth, both occasional visitors to these shores? Or maybe our largest insect, the stag beetle, which reaches lengths of up to 7 cm including its antlers? Perhaps a lovely lazy bumble bee, many species of which are in decline all over the UK, or our rarest insect the streaked bombardier beetle, which repels predators by squirting a noxious combination of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone that explodes with a noisome smell and a loud pop. Damn it! Perhaps I should do all insects. The most diverse group of organisms on the planet perhaps accounting for 90% of species diversity -- although that might take me some time.

Nah, tell you what, among all the glamorous options, let's celebrate a much maligned species which is one of my favourites, Lepisma saccharina (silverfish). These primitive wingless insects (contrary to some misinformation, not all have wings) have remained largely unchanged for the past 300 million years. I guess they get a bad rep for living among rotting wood and damp places in bathrooms, but really they are just probably eating shampoo residue and other stray starch and cellulose based products such as wallpaper paste, glues, or toast. While they might occasionally start nibbling at the gum holding books together, or in rare times of famine nibble at leather or natural fibres, they're probably not doing much damage to your stuff, they just like damp places... and if your books are damp enough to attract silverfish, you've got damp books anyway.

Most commonly seen fleetingly as they retreat from bright light, nocturnal silverfish glide gracefully with glaucous iridescence, undulating like a minnow across your bathroom floor. I think they are quite beautiful. According to wikipedia, "The reproduction of silverfish is preceded by a "love dance", involving three phases, which may last over half an hour. In the first phase, the male and female stand face to face, their trembling antennae touching, then repeatedly back off and return to this position. In the second phase the male runs away and the female chases him. In the third phase the male and female stand side by side and head-to-tail, with the male vibrating his tail against the female", after which the male deposits a gift of sperm, wrapped in gossamer, which the female picks up. How much of the first bit is true I am not sure, the second bit about the giftwrapped seminal present, however, is true. Although they stop short of a post-coital smoke.

So cut these most ancient but graceful creatures some slack for the remainder of National Insect Week, June 23–29.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Animal of the Week -- June 16, 2008

Many thanks for all the messages I received during the hiatus; sadly many people contacted me to tell of long distant relatives who had died leaving me a fortune in a foreign country or even of offers whereby I help someone with a simple money transfer of a few million dollars, from which I can take a sizable percentage for my troubles. Well, with money like that coming in I doubt there'd ever be the need for a break in AOTW again, so Bayo Bashan, Moham Bello, Mrs Awa Zoundi et al, I shall be sending you my bank details as soon as I have got this week's (or more correctly, this quarter's) AOTW out of the way.I have said before that I will never do a fictional or mythical animal, despite the temptation to do a phoenix this week (although that might be building up my return a little too much), but this week's animal of the week is.... wait for it.... A UNICORN.

OK, it's not a unicorn, but the story reported in the unpopular press of the London Underground of a one-horned roe deer, nicknamed unicorn, roaming an Italian forest piqued my interest. This genetic aberration is one of the more mundane possible sources of unicorn myths -- although a very likely source of the myth of the Kirin, the one horned beer, er deer, of Japanese myth.My personal favourite contender for the origin of the unicorn in mythology -- which has it origins in Persia and China -- is this week's Animal of the Week, the extinct giant rhinoceros Elasmotherium sibiricus. Two metres tall, six long, covered in fur, and sporting a metre long horn on the centre of it's nose, E sibiricus was the largest of the extinct genus and lived on the steppes of Russia. The latest fossil evidence of the animal comes from about 1 million years ago, but there are some who believe that this animal could have survived into the folk memory of people who lived on or passed through the steppes. There are even some accounts by mediaeval travellers of a giant one horned beast that would run down horsemen, picking the rider from the back of his or her steed, gore them to death, but leave the horse unharmed that some suspect might have been remnany populations of one elasmotherium or another. Although more closely related to rhinos than to horses, elasmotheriums were more equine in many ways as they were adapted to a cursorial existence on the open plains of Asia.

Other putative candidates for the source of unicron myths include oryx (Middle Eastern antelope) and aurochs (wild oxen), both of which, when viewed in profile as they would commonly have been painted or carved in ancient artwork, both appear to have a single horn. Of course, other genetic mishaps among antelope, deer, and goats such as created the unicorn deer are possible, and some travelling circuses and inventive scientists supposedly have created unicorn goats by fusing the horn buds of newborn goats. Poor goats.

But I like the the elasmotherium theory, the elasmotheorem if you will, of unicorn origins.

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