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THOMPSON: The amazing adaptations nature makes for survival

January 18, 2021 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


The crested rat - a rodent that roams Eastern Africa - is a creature than neither man nor beast should take lightly. He’s a crafty creature - about four to five kilograms - but deadly. He doesn’t wreak havoc with his teeth or claws, however. No, he uses poison to fend off attackers...but not in a conventional way...he borrows the poison.

The African crested rat chews on the roots and bark of Acokanthera schimperi, known informally as poison arrow trees...which contain a poison called cardenolide. The rat then spits on his coat, which has specialized hairs that absorb the poison. When bitten or mouthed by a predator...the attacker retreats...and usually dies. This poison is similar to ouabain...long used by African hunters to tip arrows so poisonous that they can bring down an adult elephant.

Like me, maybe you’re amazed at how nature seems to take care of its plants and animals. I scratch my head and ask, how did this happen? An oversight of our creator...that was later corrected? Did the crested rat observe tribal hunters and think, “You know what...I’m gonna try this on my enemies?” And how is it that Mr. crested rat isn’t susceptible to poison that can kill an elephant or a man? That’s amazing.

These are the things I ponder as I read late at night...a steady diet of news websites from around the world...with regular nibbles at scientific articles from the National Academy of Sciences, American Journal of Physics, and most recently the Journal of Virology, among others.

Invariably, I am impressed by the focus of scientists and academicians who not only accomplish research in painstaking fashion, but understand how their findings relate to our everyday world.

Over the recent holidays, I read about a natural and on-going battle between two enemies..bats and moths. Bats use their ultrasonic bio-sonar to detect their insect prey - say the Chinese taser moth - which deploys a variety of strategies to avoid predation. It’s a give-and-take thing.

One of the most amazing aspects of this life-and-death struggle is the evolutionary change of this moth. Today, the moth’s wings are covered with a canopy of scales that reduce ultrasonic echoes by absorbing sonar waves...thus making it not as visible to bats. Evolution...but still...amazing.

The exciting aspect for many scientists is understanding how this works in nature so the “technology” can be transferred for humans. Indeed, that very knowledge is being used to produce high-performance acoustic panels and noise mitigation devices for humans.

Some things we can’t even predict how or whether there is specific relevance to us from nature...other than we sort of share the same space...and it’s interesting. Last April, I read a science article about Siphonophore Apolemia, but I prefer its common name...the world’s longest “long stringy stingy thing.” It looks like a giant alien tentacle...hundreds of feet long...swirling in the oceans nearly 2,000 feet below the surface.

It looks like one long animal...but actually it’s a colony of small genetically identical clones  working together to create a larger, jellyfish-like predator in the deep sea. Again, amazing.

Last Summer, I read an article in Current Biology about a University of Northern British Columbia study on how the male White-throated Sparrow - a songbird that has for more than a century seemed to sing “Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada” - now has a whistle that ends in two syllables rather than three. So, in less than 20 years, a bird changed its tune to Oh sweet Cana Cana Cana.  Hmmmm...not nearly as sweet.

There’s not much reason for a songbird to change its tune...birds often sound the same for centuries. So, why and how did White-throated sparrows from British Columbia to Ontario start whistling a new tune...they don’t cross mountain ranges. Turns out they met in Texas...where birds from Eastern and Western Canada migrate...and apparently while there, they listen to new songs. Amazing.

Finally, a couple months ago, I read about whale researchers off the Pacific coast of Mexico who sited some rare beaked whales. But after examining photos, they realized these 15-foot-long animals were a new species. So, here we are in the 21st century...and we find something swimming in the oceans as big as a fishing boat that has never been seen...a new species. How much more is there to learn about this third rock from the Sun? A lot, maybe. Amazing, indeed.

Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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