Saturday, Jan 28, 2023

What takes down a bull elephant in a single bite?

With spring-loaded reflexes and formidable swoops, the animal kingdom proves that size doesn’t matter

ShikraThe shikra: diminutive but fierce (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

It’s all very well to weigh five tons and show a bit of attitude, to swagger around, but frankly that’s not terribly impressive. With that kind of bulk what else would you do? What is impressive is when you’re around 15 milligram, maybe, and show the same aggression as the behemoth. I’ve discovered that some of my favourite creatures are these relative tiny-tots who punch way above their weight, often regardless of the consequences.

Take jumping spiders, for instance. They’re miniscule, just 1 to 25 mm long and they’re hugely successful: 13 per cent of all spiders belong to the family, with over 6,000 species so far accounted for. They have a wonderful upright, alert posture, and big jewel-like eyes, usually eight of them that look like the headlamps on a rally car. The outermost ones deal with wide-angle vision and the innermost pair is telephoto. Whether on a wall, a twig, or leaf or wherever, they posture and feint fiercely like boxers before a bout (some of them, with their bushy moustache-like faces always remind me of Asterix!), ready to take on all comers. They have, in fact, been observed to actually climb down a stalk, and then up another one, on which they had spotted their target – and which was too far for a leap from their original position: how exactly they figured out to do this, puzzles researchers. And then, zap, they vanish, landing squarely on the victim (a fly or an ant, maybe) in the blink of an eye, sinking their jaws into it and injecting it with venom. They leap to kill, they leap to escape being killed and to get from one spot to another. But they’re not stupid: they always tether themselves with a dragline: in case the leap fails, they’ll just swing on the safely anchored silken line and climb right back up. Some species cheekily hang around the edges of regular orb webs and whiz down to snap up a victim caught in the sticky mesh, before the rightful owner of the web reaches it.

Spiders creep out a lot of people, but one way to get out of this mindset is to watch these little dudes and dudettes. Their sheer spunk can’t help but elevate your spirits, like bubbles in a glass of champagne! And they really do have beautiful, glowing eyes – obsidian black, electric blue and dark emerald!

spider Jumping spider stands poised (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

You also can’t help but respect something, maybe six to a maximum of 13 cm long that dares to charge you repeatedly, caring a damn about the consequences. A dragonfly (harmless to humans) once objected to my invasion of its airspace thus, repeatedly heading straight at me and then turning around, going up its flight corridor and charging back at me.

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Dragonflies have downsized, thanks to the reduction in the amount of atmospheric oxygen over the millennia (down to 20 per cent now from 35 per cent earlier), but seem to have forgotten that they no longer possess a 75 cm wingspan, with which to terrorize us! They’re still regarded as the most formidable aerial predators in the insect kingdom, and equipped with around 30,000 lenses in each enormous globular eye;they can see pretty much all around. Even as larvae, they are fearsome, lurking for (maybe 2 or 3) years on the beds of streams, terrorising tadpoles and small fish with their grappling iron jaws which they whip out like an unfolding jack-knife.

Underwater, however, one of the top contenders has got to be the mantis shrimp. One variety of this multihued creature boasts having the most powerful punch in the entire animal kingdom – it punches so hard with its calcified “clubs” it actually causes an underwater explosion as air bubbles collapse (it’s called cavitation), the shock wave of the blow causing more damage than the impact itself. Its eyes are considered to be among the most sophisticated in the animal kingdom.

Raptors are admired by most people, but it’s all too easy to have a fan club if you’re a golden eagle. It’s the diminutive hawks that impress me more, a personal favourite being the shikra. Smaller than a crow, this fierce little hawk, has glaring golden-orange eyes, dodges deftly through thickets in pursuit of birds and emits a defiant (if high-pitched) ‘ki-kee!’ call which puts the local birds on an all-points alert. On one occasion I had to hastily duck as a shikra zoomed out of the trees, straight at me, its eyes blazing! On another I watched one take down a pied-starling in mid-air: the suddenness of its attack was truly stunning.


Amongst mammals, the ratel or honey-badger is another defiant diehard, that will single-handedly even take on a pride of lions if need be. Set low to the ground (just 22-28 cm tall), it wears a silvery grey cape and is brownish-black beneath and explodes with aggression. It is armed with powerful claws with which to slash you to ribbons (and dig out prey from burrows), and jaws that are permanently agape!

I’ve never been a very big fan of the mongoose, but hats off for the way it goes about tackling cobras – if only we had the same kind of spring-loaded reflexes. Oh yes, it may be partially immune to snake venom, but that doesn’t take away from its accomplishment – to kill (and eat) a creature that is capable of taking down a bull elephant with a single bite!

It’s quite clear then: size doesn’t matter.

First published on: 29-12-2021 at 10:00 IST
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