College is a good time to learn valuable life lessons—and the lesson I am currently learning appears to be, “Don’t agree, without informing your advisor, to assist with projects that require about a week of your undivided attention, and if you do, don’t complain when your advisor, unaware of your predicament, assigns an equally Herculean task to you” (in my defense, said agreement was almost a year ago, and had been conveniently forgotten until about last week). Given the gravity of the situation, I’ll skip out on my intention to cover some of my favorite words, which include the names for such cheerful things as defenestration (throwing someone out of a window—a popular pastime in Prague, and incidentally what sparked the Thirty Years’ War), shibboleth (a word whose pronunciation serves to identify you as a native of a particular locale—in most historical applications, those given away as foreigners are promptly slain), scaphism (a form of torture where the victim is bound to a raft, covered in honey and left to rot under the sun as insects fester in his flesh) and tsujigiri (辻斬, “crossroads-killing,” the act of slaying a passerby to test a new blade), and instead retreat to familiar, biological territory—but not too familiar, as this week’s column will feature some tetrapods.
But first things first: I am not particularly learned on the subject of tetrapods (a fact that I greatly regret), and if you want to hear about them from someone who both knows them inside out and can convey that information in a most accessible manner, look no further than the blog “Tetrapod Zoology” by Darren Naish (coauthor of the excellent book “All Yesterdays,” which I think I have mentioned here before). I frankly find them a little bit confusing, mostly because of the vast variety of local names that they go by—most members of the order Hemiptera, for example, conveniently have the “bug” moniker somewhere in their names (and those that don’t are usually identifiable by their characteristic beaks), while the raccoon family apparently includes coatis, olingos, ringtails and cacomistles alongside raccoons, and none of those names sound particularly raccoonish to me (and don’t even get me started on birds—if things were up to me, ravens, magpies and nutcrackers would be called greater crows, lesser crows and least crows, while choughs would be red- or yellow-billed crows, and jays, painted crows). This is made worse by names that involve comparisons to other species—there you have abominations like the bearcat (binturong, a large relative of civets and genets), otter shrews (aquatic tenrecs, go figure), elephant shrews (more elephant than shrew, and almost completely unrelated to otter shrews), lion-monkeys (kinkajous, a raccoon relative with a prehensile tail) and almost every marsupial out there, all of which goes to amply demonstrate the rationale behind binomial names and makes you wonder whether some of the naturalists who described these freaks stumbled into the “The Last Airbender” world after all.
In any case…tetrapods. I suppose the obvious start would be the platypus, one of those animals that exist for the sole purpose of confounding humanity. A beaver-tailed, duck-billed, toothless otter was so weird a concept that the initial accounts of the creature were believed to be fake, but these features are only the beginnings of the platypus’s abnormalities: as a monotreme, it of course reproduces by laying eggs; the males possess a venomous spur on their hind legs; and the animal hunts by sensing the electric fields created by the muscle contractions of its prey—its signature bill, far from a biological curiosity, contains electroreceptive organs across its surface, allowing the animal to detect its quarry even when closing its eyes, nose and ears while underwater. It has, for reasons unknown, ten sex chromosomes (as opposed to the two found in most everything else), its sex determination system is rather more similar to that of birds than of other mammals, and its skeleton is about what you’d expect from such an animal (of particular note is its benign-looking beak, which becomes absolutely terrifying when its skeletal supports are revealed). But despite widespread media sensationalization of it as a chimera of mammalian, avian and reptilian traits, the platypus stands firmly within the mammalian clade: its venom and bill were derived separately from those of serpents and birds, and its egg-laying habit is an idiosyncrasy of a time long gone by, when the average mammal was not too different from a venomless, bill-less platypus.
Slightly less weird, and substantially more dangerous, is the honey badger, another animal of internet fame—of the same stock as wolverines (which are known to fight bears and live to tell the tale), this pudgy mustelid will eat anything that it can get its claws on, and can evidently drive off young lions to claim their kills. Humans fare little better, as the tough skin that allows honey badgers to rip apart beehives with impunity is also durable enough to withstand knives and arrows, and yet retains more than enough flexibility to let the animal turn and bite its ambusher when grabbed from the back. At the other end of the carnivore spectrum is the equally bizarre aardwolf, one of the four extant species of hyena, which specializes almost exclusively in termites—the sticky tongue of the aardwolf, like that of the pangolin, aardvark, anteater and numbat, is ideal for capturing social insects in their burrows, and the animal may consume hundreds of thousands of termites each night.
It ended up being a mammalian column, didn’t it? Well, if that’s the case, let’s finish this up by brief mentions of a couple of other notable mammals—say, babirusas (deer-like pigs with tusks that curl back toward themselves and, given enough time, may kill a male by growing right into his skull), colugos (a group closely related to primates, composed of two lemur-like animals with gliding membranes—speaking of gliding, it is notable that bats, too, are closely related to us), okapis (forest-adapted, short-necked giraffes) and tapirs (deer-like animals that were the inspiration for the dream-eating Japanese spirit baku and, owing to the empty space required for their prehensile and prodigiously large snouts, have rather intimidating skulls—their bite is no trifle, either, as one tapir managed to rip an arm clean off its keeper). Mammalian diversity is not to be underestimated.