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Down in Jungleland: Nature’s Improv

How mother nature adapts to changing circumstances.

Written by Ranjit Lal |
Updated: February 11, 2018 12:00:06 am
mother nature, nature, world, air, water, earth, animals, birds, wild life, trees, inspiring stories, indian express, indian express news (Source: Thinkstock Images)

Mother Nature has often left us so gob-smacked with her creations that all we can do really is to gawk and go wow! Whether it is a sleek orca slapping the ocean with its flipper, a cheetah in pursuit of an equally agile antelope, or even a rosebud on the point of opening — nature’s marvels remind you of William Blake’s immortal words about the tiger: ‘What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’

Nature also runs the biggest jugaad workshop on the earth. She had, long ago, realised that to stupidly stick to a traditional design in a creature under changing environmental circumstances was to give that poor creature an extinction sentence. Her main problem? She couldn’t scrap the whole project and design it afresh — she had to take what she’d already had, and tinker with it till it survived in its current environment. Sometimes, she defied logic and common sense. For instance, when the land-dwelling ancestors of whales and dolphins, which are mammals, decided to go back into the seas, she forgot that she already had the perfect solution for the problem they’d face — breathing. She could have given them gills, like fish already had. Instead, what she did was to redesign and relocate the land-dwelling creatures’ nostrils. Now, instead of two small nostrils at the tip of the nose, the new models (whales and dolphins) were given one large blowhole at the tops of their heads with an elaborate valve system, to ensure they could breathe properly. They retained their lungs.

Several of her original ideas have also fallen into disuse due to changing circumstances — but the relics of those ideas are still, sometimes, retained. Hair on animals (and early people) was originally used as insulation: when the animal (or early you) felt cold, the hair on your body rose trapping air and keeping you warm. But it was also found that by having your hair stand up on end, you tended to look bigger and more intimidating, which was good when you were being threatened or when you wanted to threaten and growl at your enemy! We sophisticated humans have, of course, lost most of our body hair, but we still get goose-bumps when we’re very scared or angry — and the little hair on the backs of our necks still rises stiffly under these circumstances — so the ancient mechanism still works!

Till recently, I admired the eyes of birds like hawks, eagles and falcons; and, of course, our own. Then I read that the eye is pretty poorly designed for what it does. For starters, it focuses only on a small central area (the fovea) which needs to move around to take in the entire scene, and then it renders the image upside down. Worse, the retina — where the image forms — was placed back to front, and all the nerve wiring in relation to the rods and cones (the eye’s “photocells”) crisscrossed like spaghetti in front of it; before sort of clumping together in a hole in the retina (the “blind” spot) to form the optic nerve heading for the brain. It was left to the poor brain — like Photoshop — to sharpen, straighten and sort out the mess! I still haven’t found out why Mother Nature made such a colossal boo-boo in her original design.

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The koala, originally, was related to a ground-dwelling, digging wombat-like animal and had its pouch (to carry its young) facing backwards — because, otherwise, the baby would get a face-full of mud every time its mother dug. Then, perhaps lured by sweet eucalyptus, koalas took to climbing and clinging to trees — and the backwards facing pouch became a downwards facing one: again, not good for a baby with poor grip. It will be interesting to see whether the pouch will now evolve into a safer upwards opening one (like kangaroos have) or baby koalas will simply continue to clutch on for dear life and not fall out!

It seems that Mother Nature is pretty deceptive. A bird of paradise, a muscle-rippling tiger, a racehorse and even some of us — all so beautiful on the outside. But open us up, and there’s a bloody mess of jammed up organs, mattresses of fat, blood vessels like bowls of noodles running across dementedly everywhere (it’s astonishing how surgeons sort through all this). Not aesthetically engineered and certainly not designer! Rather like my bedroom after I’ve cleaned it: spick and span, as long as you don’t open the cupboards!

Of course, there’s another name for Mother Nature’s jugaad. Evolution!

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher

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