Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wild Wildlife: Black-Crowned Night Herons

A visitor touring the outdoor bird exhibits at the zoo might be surprised to see very large, impressive-looking birds perching in the trees and flying freely above the enclosures. These are black-crowned night herons; apparently, these wild birds like nesting at the zoo, near the bird house. I’m not sure if it’s because the area makes them feel safe and at home or if they enjoy taunting the captive birds, or both, but there they are: present in large numbers (forty? Sixty? More?) and displaying none of the shyness I’ve seen in them in wilder places. They’re constantly contorting themselves in the trees, too, in order to grab and then wrench loose twigs (or even branches) that are the right size for their huge nests.

[a juvenile heron -
why are their eyes yellow while the adults' are red?]

Monday, June 28, 2010

Amazonia: The Enchantment of Open Space

When I was a kid, I always loved the aviary at the Detroit Zoo, in spite of its stuffy, humid air and its pervasive scent of guano—or perhaps even because of it, since that accentuated its realness. I loved it because, more than anywhere else, it came the closest to bridging the gap between the zoo and the wild. True, the animals were captive within the exhibit, but they weren’t lined up in cages—they were free to roam, to fly, to elude your view. Part of the pleasure was the search for the birds and the flush of accomplishment when you found them.

Amazonia has the same appeal for me, made even better because, 1. there are monkeys in there, which aviaries tend not to include (silly taxonomic nitpickers) and 2. the place is filled with all kinds of tropical trees, including—O most wondrous—a cocoa-bean tree, from which cocoa pods, precursors of chocolate, tantalizingly hang. I do understand that raw cocoa beans are not exactly a taste sensation (or at least not a good sensation), but my mouth still waters every time I catch a glimpse of those pods. Climbing up the stairs to this steamy pseudo-forest, the scent of leaf-flavored oxygen all around, the quiet broken by the chirrup of birds, is a magical experience, as is the sight of birds flitting though the trees almost too fast to see or the realization that the strange shape on that branch is a sun-bittern nest, complete with a female, nesting bittern. It’s remarkable and somewhat humbling to feel like a part of the habitat rather than an observer of it.

[the wondrous cocoa-pods, just waiting
to become a Lindt or Godiva masterpiece]

And yet I have mixed feelings about the Amazonia exhibit, for the same reason that I feel some ambivalence about aviaries: because there are also people in there, and cages are made not just to keep animals in but to keep humans out. When this protection is no longer present, animals become vulnerable to the deep human desire to get too close—or, even worse, to touch everything.

It’s true that in Amazonia the primary focus of this attention, a brother and sister pair of dusky Titi monkeys, are habituated to humans and will descend to a branch within an arm’s reach or less from you without being in the least concerned by your presence. But it’s also true that signs ask you to keep five feet away from the monkeys. This isn’t always possible—but you’d think the sign would suggest to people that one of the things you shouldn’t do is try to pet the monkeys.

You would be surprised at how many people—children and adults—want to do this. It’s a little strange to me; I mean, photograph the monkeys? Sure! But pet them? Not so much. Maybe because it’s so clear that this is their environment and that we humans are simply visitors who would do well to respect the creatures that belong. But most people don’t seem to consider that, or to care. They just know that the monkey is close to them, and he or she looks fuzzy. Clearly, the fact that s/he’s not running away means s/he wants to be petted.

On the rare occasions when a volunteer hasn’t been present, I’ve taken it upon myself to say (as to a group of eleven- or twelve-year-old boys and their chaperone), “Don’t touch the monkey”—adding, “It’s a wild animal; it’ll bite you.” I said this with such authority that the group started asking me other questions, assuming—in spite of my being dressed in my typical dorky-casual going-to-the-zoo outfit, camera around my neck—that I worked there. (Luckily, I was able to answer their questions and maintain my aura of omniscience). –But of course they still wanted to touch the monkey. I don’t know what would work better to convince them otherwise; should I appeal to their sense of decency, saying, “You’ll scare it”? Should I appeal to their sense of self-preservation and germophobia, explaining that these monkeys have fleas and other parasites that will jump to people if they touch them?

Not that I usually say anything. I just try to enjoy my own time there, to appreciate the magical zoo-but-not-a-zoo feeling of being so close to an animal that I could touch it.

Unless it’s the spoonbill. That thing’ll take your arm off.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Flamingo Friday: Bill Me

Because I’ve done exactly what I complain about in others and haven’t bothered to educate myself, I can only assume that the flamingos engaging in these honking-followed-by-bill-to-bill-contact encounters are bickering (or should I say beak-ering?) with one another. They certainly seem ruffled, but for all I know this is a complicated greeting display performed between mated pairs, related individuals, and extremely close childhood friends.

Either way, it’s quite compelling, if a little hard on the eardrums. And they do it all the time.

(Incidentally, one of my “Bill Me” shots from flickr got shortlisted to be in the Washington, DC “Schmap”—something that, when I first saw the email about it, I assumed was a scam along the lines of the Nigerian-banking missives. But apparently it’s a legitimate guide of some sort. Who knew?)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Creationism at the Zoo (or, How I Missed Seeing the Gorilla Outdoor Pavilion)

On my second trip to the zoo after we’d moved to DC, I was heading towards the outdoor gorilla enclosure—along with a crowd of other people—when a man near me said to his friend, “This is was I don’t get: they say we evolved from these guys [indicating the gorillas]; so what are they waiting for?”

“Ah-ha! I can answer that!” I said cheerfully, hoping my pleasant but eager-to-inform attitude would make up for having eavesdropped. (I decided not to even approach the whole question of whether an ape would choose to become human if it, or its long-distant offspring, could.)

The men politely turned my way and listened as I explained how we’re not, in fact, descended from modern-day apes; instead, we both share a common ancestor in the evolutionary past. I even tried to use a comparison that I’d come across in the zoo’s Think Tank to make it more clear: that you and your cousin both have the same grandmother, but you’re not descended from your cousin. “Yeah, but my cousins are still in my family,” the man argued.

We went on from there, debating but in a decidedly friendly fashion; I don’t think I convinced him of anything, but I did try to disabuse him of the notion—which is a common one—that you have to believe in either evolution or god, but not both. On the contrary, I explained, science only explains and studies processes, and it’s up to every individual to decide how or why those processes were started. Darwin himself, I told him, said that in learning about the ways in which species diverged he was instilled with a greater sense of reverence and awe than he would otherwise have had. “Darwin was not an atheist,” I emphasized.

That did impress him a little, and it came out that he’d been bad-mouthing Darwin for quite some time—perhaps, he admitted now, unjustly. At the end of our discussion, though, he informed me that he was “still a creationist.” “Okay,” I said amicably; if he was more willing to think about what I’d said if I didn’t attack what he clearly felt was a defining position, then so be it.

By this point the gorilla-pavilion area was completely crowded with people, and I gave up on getting towards the front; I waved at the man and headed off to the elephants.

My interaction with him was both cheering and really depressing. On the one hand, it was great that he and I were able to talk without becoming hostile or dismissive. On the other hand, of course I couldn’t convince him in a ten-minute conversation that 1. evolution occurs and 2. it doesn’t need to contradict religion.

I wish I’d been able to explain more articulately that one really doesn’t have to have anything to do with the other. It’s true that I’m an atheist, but that’s a product of my secular upbringing, not my training in science. Science poses questions and tries to answer them using evidence, and a requisite of the scientific method is that experiments have to be designed so that hypotheses can be disproven if they’re wrong. Science is based on supporting or disproving ideas. Religion is about faith, not tests or proof. You can’t test religion in a laboratory, and you can’t “believe in” scientific statements that are made without research to support them.

This man’s conviction—which, again, is a common one—made me sad, because it leads people to be even less willing and/or able to understand scientific information.

After all, modern biology—modern science—as a discipline wouldn’t exist without the conceptual foundation of evolution. –Admittedly, there were times in grad school when I didn’t want the discipline to exist, but still. So if someone becomes distrustful of any information that’s related to evolution, they’re not going to be interested in hearing or knowing much of anything to do with medicine, the environment, climatology, geology, or—well, anything scientific, really. (Maybe some stuff about space exploration, I guess, but only if there’s no talk about the age of the solar system.) It means that other people will make decisions for them about issues that matter to everyone, from environmental protection to the over-prescription of antibiotics.

I hope that our discussion made this man more open to scientific ideas—or at least less mad at scientists. I wish I’d been able to think faster on my feet and elaborate more on my arguments so I could certain of that.

And I wish I’d seen the gorillas.

[one of the gorillas I didn't get to see that day]

A quick note

I'll be out of town from tomorrow until July 5th; I'll still be posting, but not as regularly.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Strange Allure: "Great Cats"

Actually, they’re just big.

I mean, okay, I get it: they’re impressive hunters out in the veldt or deep in the jungle or wherever they live, stalking prey with that slope-backed lope, lunging at gazelle and striking them down with one heavy blow from a huge paw…blah, blah blah… --I’m sorry; I’m snoring already.

Maybe, since I'm allergic to house cats and so have never spent much time with them, I’m primed to be less appreciative of the larger versions of same. Or maybe it’s because in zoos they just sit around all day, every day, lying almost entirely still, with none of the clear contemplative intelligence of apes, the charm of lemurs or otters, or the fascinating foreignness of sea anemones or nautili. They. Just. Sit. There. Looking like big cats. What a thrill.

Of course, as I made a rare trip to the “Great Cats” exhibit in order to photographically document this (lack of) behavior, my argument was proven to be less than all-inclusive. It’s true that the tigers were doing nothing at all. But the lions—brace yourselves—were actually pacing near the moat! That’s right: the male and one female were walking back and forth, slowly. This was so exciting that it had drawn a huge crowd, with people leaning as far as they could over the rail and holding their children up to observe the awe-inspiring sight of large cats walking.

[She's moving so fast that she's blurred!
-At a shutter speed of 60]

It’s a failing in me, I’m sure. But I just—I don’t get it. And maybe I would mind less if the same people got equally excited about watching an octopus, which first of all moves more than these felines (hell, I’m willing to bet that the dead Pacific octopus moved more than most of those cats) and second of all can fit through any space larger than its beak (we’re talking sliding through keyholes, here). How is that less cool than seeing a lioness yawn?

Now, if the lioness started oozing through a space the size of a keyhole, I’d be right there at that railing. Or maybe, depending on where she was going, I’d be far, far away.

[This lioness is engaging in more typical "Great Cat" behavior:
Look--she's going to get up!--No. No, she's not.]

He's Pregnant

People, as I may have mentioned about forty thousand times, drive me crazy. And not just the people in zoos, of course, but people in general, and the ways in which they unwittingly perpetuate the most infuriating and detrimental stereotypes about everything—class, race, sex, gender, you name it. It’s part of why I can’t watch television unless I skip through the commercials (those grotesque, manipulative upholders of the status quo); no one in an apartment building likes to hear a madwoman shrieking imprecations at every ad that comes on.

One of the many specific things that drives me crazy about people is how they tend to assume that every animal they see is male. This is not only highly unlikely, statistically speaking—it’s also representative of the way that females, of any kind, get left out of discourse, from The Developments of Mankind to the actions of an ant (if it’s doing work, it’s probably female, people). I heard Marlene Zuk, the renowned biologist, discuss just this problem at an Inclusive Science conference a couple of years ago; she also mentioned the dangers that these assumptions pose for those trying to study and understand animal behavior. And other people, far more incisive critics than I, have addressed this, too: Sherry Ortner, Rayna Reiter, and Kate Millet, among others. (No, I’m not that good; I have a mother who knows these things.)

It’s easy to see these androcentric attitudes in action at the zoo, where every animal a child or adult comments on—unless said animal is actively nursing young—is a he. This is true even when very visible placards explain otherwise. For example, does the orangutan you’re looking at have large cheek pads? No? Then call her “she.” Or, is the gibbon in front of you blonde—the color, the placard tells us, of mature females? Then maybe “Bill” is not an appropriate nickname for her, unless you’re interested in gender-queering your zoo experience (and we both know you’re not).

[This orangutan cannot believe you thought she was male]

You could even try referring to 50% of the animals you see as “she,” just to acknowledge statistical likelihoods. Or here’s an even better idea: just call all the animals you see “she”; you’ll only be half-wrong, and at least you’ll be bucking the trend. And, more importantly, trying to see animals as female might make you think of females differently: you might realize that they do more than just sit on nests—that they are jumping, eating, climbing, yowling, imitating you, scratching themselves, rolling in water, chasing one another—that they are active and interesting. And, most of all, present.

Or you could keep doing what you’re doing and then watch an action movie.

Hell. I think I’ll go reread The Female Man.

["You callin' me 'he'? You callin' me 'he'? Well, I'm the only one here..."]

Flamingo Friday: Frustration

or, Mallards Are Sabotaging My Photoshoot

It was the perfect day to get more pictures of flamingos browsing picturesquely in their pond; the sun was shining, the breeze was blowing--but not so much as to make the water’s surface too choppy--the flamingos were wading. But the flamingos were not the only birds in the pond. No; the flamingos were outnumbered—greatly outnumbered—by ducks.

I have nothing against wild birds enjoying the zoo’s habitats; on the contrary, I’m usually only too pleased to see how nicely landscaped and welcoming the zoo’s enclosures are. But I draw the line at scene-stealing waterfowl.

It’s not just that they were in the background--which they were; it’s not just that they often disrupted quite beautiful reflections with their unruly paddling--although they did that, too.

It’s more that, just as I had trained my lens, and waited, and was finally about to capture a good shot--a propitious combination of light, color, and flamingo position--something like this would happen:

Think it only happened once? Ha! Feast your eyes on these marvelously ruined photo opportunities:

I didn’t fault the ducklings; they got in the way, too, but they were just too cute to get mad at.

Nor did I fault the wood duck, just because, with what I admit is a small amount of bird-snobbery, I consider her less common, more novel, and therefore an acceptable subject of photographs in and of herself.

But the mallards…

They drove me to such a point that, more than once, I uttered a word that is not Zoo Friendly. Luckily, there were no children around (not that the kids themselves would care, but their parents would not be happy with me). Eventually, however, I foiled the fowls and managed to get some halfway decent shots after all:

But I could tell they were gloating.

[note how the lovely flamingo reflections are overshadowed
by this smugly preening mallard]

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stealth Educating

[Can you find the cuttlefish in this picture?]

About a month ago, for only an hour, I appointed myself an under-the-radar, unofficial volunteer in the Invertebrates House at the zoo—a pretty pathetic affair to my mind, but then I suppose, with the Baltimore Aquarium only an hour away, they figure people can head to Maryland if they’re really interested in spineless creatures (or they can visit Congress).

The invertebrate house does have a few of my favorite organisms: cephalopods, the class of mollusks that includes octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, and nautili. When I visited the zoo on a DC trip in January, I’d rushed to get to the invertebrate house in time for the 11am “Feeding of the Giant Pacific Octopus,” only to discover that the octopus had recently died (they only live 3-4 years). They’ve got a new one now, though, although s/he isn’t very giant as of yet, and the feeding—a volunteer waving a shrimp around on the end of a skewer—is not quite the thrilling experience I’d hoped it would be.

They also have a couple of nautili (the only cephalopods with shells) and a few cuttlefish, the cutest of the cephalopods: they look like chunky squids and usually tuck their stubby tentacles bashfully beneath them as they float or rest on the bottom.

All well and good. But on this day, one of the cuttlefish had been transferred to the tank that used to contain only nautili. Admittedly, there was a placard against the corner wall that named and described both species, but the only sign on the tank proper announced “Nautilus.” This meant that children who gravitated towards the tank and its most active member, the cuttlefish, would be told by their parents that they were looking at a nautilus.

I could not allow this to continue.

Since I wanted to hang around admiring the cuttlefish anyway, I placed myself at a corner of the tank and informed every child or adult who asked (often rhetorically), “What is that?” that they were seeing a cuttlefish: “But it’s not a fish; it’s related to squid,” I would explain. “And up in the corner there is a nautilus. It’s related to cuttlefish, too.” If the recipients of my knowledge seemed worthy, I would tell them more about the amazing properties of the cuttlefish, like its ability to change colors—to match its surroundings or as an expression of emotion—within a fraction of a second, or the fact that it can also change the very texture of its skin to better camouflage itself in a smooth or pebbly environment.

If I had had a truly captive audience (and I suspect the descriptor would have to be literal), I would have gone on to describe the experiments that have been done demonstrating that cuttlefish can imitate the patterns of even such unfamiliar substrates as checkerboards (see Roger Hanlon's lab webpage), or explained why cuttlefish and octopuses are capable of such lightning-fast changes in their coloration (their pigment cells are under neurological control, unlike the slow-changing, hormonal control of crustaceans’ coloration).

But I didn’t do any of that. Instead I continued my simple public service, gratified by the interest of some, disappointed by the dismissive attitudes of others (including those children and adults who asked what appears to be an eternal, haunting question for them: “Why are they so ugly?”), and occasionally bemused by the odd convictions of the few—as in the case of a young woman with a small child, who listened to my spiel, scrutinized the animal, and told her child, “He does look cuddly, doesn’t he? But if you tried it, he’d probably bite your arm off.” I was surprised. Sure, it’s good to teach your kids to respect the wildness of wild animals, but we’re talking about a creature six inches long with a tendency to escape danger in a cloud of ink. It might give you a sharp nip with its beak if it felt really threatened, but you’re not going to need a prosthetic.

[a truly dangerous beast]

By the end of an hour, the predictability of people’s reactions was beginning to wear on me, and I left the Invertebrate House to get another look at the orangutans before heading home. I can’t say for sure that my work made a lasting impression on anyone else, but it did give me a new level of respect for the real volunteers; imagine having to stand there hour after hour, answering the same questions and enduring the same, often annoying responses. I couldn’t do it if you paid me. (Well, actually, I could do it if you paid me—I just couldn’t do it for free.) Admittedly, it would give my stern remarks (“Stop tapping on the glass!”) more authority, but that’s never stopped me before. I’ve found that a severe attitude and an air of command are all you really need. That and a fleet foot, just in case an imposing parent takes offense.

[all cuttlefish photos--except the first--taken at the New England Aquarium, Boston, MA]

Monday, June 14, 2010

You Otter Be in Pictures

Who doesn’t like otters? Those blunt-nosed, cute and comical faces, those amazingly agile bodies, that inquisitive, playful air—that tendency to inspire in their admirers a veritable deluge of adjectives… Put simply: they’re great.

I got to see some otters in the wild when I was on a college internship in Anacortes, WA—river otters, I learned, although they were swimming along the shores of Puget Sound. They would lie around on the half-submerged rocks at high tide, eating shellfish, playing, and making impossible-to-imitate noises that were a cross between dog-yelps and cheeps. I could never get too close to them, though, and, because this was in 2001, that long-ago time before everyone had a digital camera with a built-in zoom, I never got any good pictures of them, either (“See that speck on the rock? No, the other rock? That’s an otter!”).

And until recently the only images, visual or digital, I had of the six Asian small-clawed otter brothers at the zoo were ones of them snoozing together in a cute but sadly un-photogenic clump. Then I happened to be passing through one morning when the otters were surprisingly active (and close to my lens). One of the brothers started playing with a pebble, moving it from paw to paw as if he were practicing for a juggling or sleight-of-hand act. Another otter took the practice up, although they didn’t try passing the pebbles between them; apparently each brother wanted to be a solo act.

After twenty minutes or so, though, the otters seemed to decide that they, and their audience, had had enough fun, and the group of them went off to lie in a log: once again adorable and impossible to photograph.

Inconsiderate little lutrines…

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Leda and the Swan...

…this was not, in any possible way, and yet the masterful Yeats poem did come to mind as I watched this very consensual tryst between peacock and peahen. I think it was something about the eerie power of it, the almost mystical grace with which they engaged, that made their brief sex act seem less like a quickie in the hedges and more like the stuff of legend. Or it could have been incipient sunstroke on my part.

(How did it happen? You might ask. Well, the male had been strutting his stuff, as per usual, for a while—much to the excitement of the human visitors to the aviary, who are always offended when he doesn’t turn his eye-spotted tail to face them; they seem to be under the mistaken impression that he’s displaying for their benefit. Finally, when most of the people had left, a peahen strolled up and positioned herself purposefully in front of the male. She didn’t need to tell him twice.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

“Hey, BIRD!!!

Sometimes I hate children. Like when they gaze at the animals and say things like:

“Why are they so ugly?”


“These snakes are stupid. Why don’t they do something?”

[Taptaptaptaptap] “Lookit, the cuttlefish will change color if I knock on the glass!”
[taptaptaptaptaptaptaptaptapTAPTAPTAPTAP; —meanwhile, the cuttlefish resolves to spend another three months in therapy.]

“Poof!” [the plosives perilously close to an alarmed duck] “–I’m not trying to scare him! I named him Poof! POOF!! –I didn’t scare him!”

“Hey, look over here! HEY! Look over here! –Aw, they suck. I want some ice cream.”

But, Olivia—I know you’re saying to me—You shouldn’t hate the children—you should blame the parents who raised them so badly.

Don’t worry; I hate them, too—much more than their obnoxious offspring, who have the excuse of youth and, often, the offsetting factor of cuteness in their favor.

I hate adults when they point at gorillas and tell their children, “Look at the monkeys!”

I hate them when they don’t try to stop their kids from chasing or scaring the animals in aviaries or the Amazonia exhibit.

I hate them when they’re mean to their kids, impatiently snapping, “No, Sophie, you have to time it so you can get a picture of his head too. –No, that’s not right—do you want me to do it? Give me the camera” –or, smiling with what seems to me like cruel pleasure, asking, “Hey, want to see a dolphin, kids?” There are no dolphins at the zoo; there’s only a mural with a dolphin on it. Good one, Dad. You’ve really made sure they’ll trust you when they’re teenagers.

I hate them when they say things like:
“No, honey, they’re not mating, they’re just playing.”

“You want to know what that is? It’s a pheasant.” [It’s not a pheasant.]

[not a pheasant]

“That’s right, they’re smarter than monkeys but not as smart as people.”

I’m not saying that you should have to come to the zoo well-informed; there’s nothing wrong with ignorance, especially if it’s coupled with enthusiasm and a desire to learn. But there is something wrong with ignoring THE INFORMATIONAL PLACARDS ALL AROUND YOU and disseminating misinformation to your children. I’m not asking people to be able to recite the family-genus-species of an animal when they point it out to their kids. I’m just saying, if the sign right in front of you explains that among orangutans, which are apes, males have large cheek pads and females do not (and there’s a picture), you shouldn’t tell your kid to “See the monkey? Look at how he’s playing” when a female orang named Iris is chewing meditatively on a blade of grass.

[still not a pheasant.]

And even more, I hate them when they teach their children to be dismissive of the animals—to talk about how ugly they are, or how boring, to instill in their children a sense not just of superiority but of contempt for other life. I don’t understand; why bring your kid to the zoo at all?

And, to be fair, there are times when I really love children—like when five-year-olds exclaim:

“Look, Mama! A cormorant! I’ve been wanting to see one my whole life!” or

“I think they have another exhibit area over there!” or

“Look, that bird only hops when he walks!” [It’s true—sparrows almost never put one foot in front of the other when walking, unlike pigeons or gulls.]

I love it when they squeal with glee at the sight of an elephant, or when they become mesmerized by the direct gaze of a gibbon or the antics of an otter. I love it when nine-year-olds can discuss “cephalopods,” wielding the word with the same ease with which they discuss video games or homework assignments (but with far more enthusiasm than the latter). I love it when boys who look to be in middle school can say without embarrassment that the baby gorilla is “adorable.” I love kids’ capacity for amazement in what animals do and how and why they do it, a curiosity that in adults seems mostly, sadly absent.

And adults—well, I never love adults. But there are times I dislike them much less than others.

[This is a pheasant.]

Flamingo Friday: Reflections

I never thought I'd have an obsession with flamingos, but ever since I came upon their outdoor habitat and saw the whole flock of them at rest, each one perched aesthetically on one leg with its head tucked beneath its wing, that was it. It is, I admit, an entirely visual obsession--there's nothing pleasant about their raucous honking or, worse, the eye-wateringly foul (fowl?) scent of their guano that on bad days blows towards visitors in a choking wave.

But they're just so damn pretty.

P.S. Several of the flamingos are nesting now, and I'm hoping that some of the eggs will be viable and will hatch (stay tuned). By the way, what's the appropriate term for a baby flamingo? A flamingling? A flamingette? A flamingino?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wild Wildlife: Insects

The sign of a good zoo, I think, is that it’s landscaped in such a way as to be friendly to native wildlife as well as the animals officially living in it. The National Zoo has done a good job of this, and the trees, hedges, and ponds that border its enclosures are well-populated with local birds, mammals, and insects.

I could talk about any number of those animals—and I probably will at some point—but today I not only saw a bunch of beautiful butter-, dragon- and damselflies, I overheard the following teenage conversation (I should say “monologue”) about said creatures:

“Ohmigod, the other day? There were dragonflies all over the softball field, and we were like, ‘What are they doing here?’ and Julie was like, ‘They’re mating,’ and it’s like, that is soo disgusting. Why do they have to do that here???”

I refrained from suggesting to them that adults probably feel the same way about their make-out sessions. Instead I simply documented the fact that damselflies were “doing that” at the zoo, too:

The Only Other Mulberry Eaters in DC

When I was in grad school back in Somerville, MA, I used to keep a close eye on the campus mulberry trees, hoping to be able to gather the fruit as it ripened and before the birds gobbled it all up. If the harvest was good and I was feeling generous, I would offer my crop to the members of the biology department. There, people would eye the berries suspiciously and ask me, “You can eat these?”, as if they feared they’d be the victims of a clever poisoning scheme (“Here, committee members, have some yew berries—they’re awfully tasty…And I’ve brought you some hemlock for dessert!”). Only the grad students from China and India recognized the berries as, you know, food—and accepted them with pleasure.

So it’s nice to see someone else enjoying the mulberries here, even if that someone isn’t a human but rather a spectacled-bear cub, one of two born just this year at the National Zoo:

(Unfortunately, the lens’ focus is on the mulberries—but then, that’s where the bear cub’s focus was, too.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Desire [Under] the Aviary

(Eugene O’Neill, eat your heart out.)

A question that’s much discussed in evolutionary biology is “Why sex?” –No, not like that, you sicko. The question is, why be one of two separate sexes when it means only half of your genes will get passed on to your offspring, whereas if you were an organism that just cloned itself, all of your progeny would be you, you, you? One of the major answers, which has a lot of data to support it, is that sex leads to variation, and variation is good when you need something for natural selection to act on. –But actually, I’m not going to talk about that at all. Evolutionary foci aside, a good reason on a day-to-day level is, Because it’s very entertaining.

No, not like that, you sicko (although that, too). It’s entertaining because it’s fascinating to watch members of other species trying to attract one another—especially since almost all of them seem to have much better pick-ups than humans do. Take, for example, Temminck’s tragopan.

A pair of them live in the Outdoor Flight Exhibit aviary at the zoo: the female is a pretty brown color with lots of patterning; the male is more red-brown, with a bright blue face (as shown in the photo above). At least, that’s how he is most of the time. So imagine my surprise when, right before my camera lens, he transformed himself: suddenly, from his copper-colored crest, electric-blue horns popped up, and in an instant his chest was covered with a huge apron of blue marked with red and navy. He spread his wings, bobbed his head, and made a series of urgent-sounding clacking noises, his blazing-blue wattle and horns trembling with passion:

I was very impressed. The female, on the other hand, was not exactly blown away. In fact, I’d characterize her expression as: “Eh.”

(But you know, maybe he took her to a movie one night, because about a month later the two of them were taking turns brooding some eggs.)
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