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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Why a list of favourites from the wild must have the obvious and the unusual

Which creatures -- micro to macro organisms -- from the animal kingdom made the cut and why

Written by Ranjit Lal |
Updated: January 17, 2021 12:34:33 pm
Mantis shrimpAmong the vast insect world, top of the list would be dungbeetles, those portly beetles eating, breeding, raising its families in dung — and turning it into useful soil. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m often asked who my favourite author is and I always fumble before saying that it keeps changing depending on the best book I’ve read most recently. With regards to the animal kingdom, this list seems to stay relatively constant, spanning the myriad families the creatures (tiny tots and moving up) hail from.

The first on the list has to be Toxoplasma — a single-cell protozoan which has the most diabolical love life possible. It honeymoons in the guts of cats and the next-gen Toxo are evacuated via normal channels. Here, the baby Toxo lies doggo (and may even die) in the litter box or ground until a mouse or rat happens along and snuffles it up. In the rat gut, the Toxo gets to work: it migrates to the brain (the amygdala) and cuts the rat’s fear circuits in relation to cats: the rat is now unafraid of cats — though it has all the other usual rat phobias in place. Worse, the Toxo now helps release dopamine — the feel-good chemical that makes the rat develop feelings for the cat! So, off it goes in search of its new love and promptly gets eaten. Back in the honeymoon suite, the Toxo begins the whole romance again. This must be the most Machiavellian love story ever devised!

Among the vast insect world, top of the list would be dungbeetles, those portly beetles eating, breeding, raising its families in dung — and turning it into useful soil. If there were no dungbeetles, we’d be drowning in bovine dung and, no matter how exalted we make dung out to be, we’d be very sick, indeed, waist-deep in the muck.

For the second and third places in the insect world, it is a toss up between hoverflies and dragonflies. The former because of their unparalleled control of flight: they hover, stock still and zip in every direction. The latter not only because they are superb flyers, but also expert hunters on the wing. They also come in a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns. They are the fighter aircraft of the insect kingdom! A close fourth is the praying mantis: that chinless monster with gin-trap arms, beseeching, begging manner and appetite for its husbands. Usually green and slim, certain species can also beautifully mimic flowers and orchids snapping their barbed traps on any insect which happens by.

Spiders and scorpions don’t have too many admirers but I love the little jumping spiders, with their bright obsidian eyes and boxer-like feinting postures as they fiercely track flyby insects on the wall.

Among amphibians, there’s the psychedelic poison-arrow (or poison-dart) frogs of South and Central America, tiny bejewelled and deadly enough to take down 20 men by a mere touch!

Most snakes, though not vastly popular, are truly gorgeous with their polished, varnished scales. Under water, the multicoloured mantis shrimp, which also has superb vision, packs the most diabolical punch imaginable: a blow delivered so fast that it causes explosive cavitation bubbles to form with its arms to stun its prey — before the killer blow follows. It can break the glass of an aquarium with a single blow! As for the giants, my vote goes to the orca or killer whale: clad in patent-leather tuxedos, and sporting wide smiles, gangs of these are really water wolves on the hunt, like those ruthless multinational executives as they rip their prey to shreds.

Among around 10,000 species of birds, to pick winners is a tough call. But I choose the raptors — not so much the huge heavy eagles as the lithe lightning-fast falcons. I’ve a soft spot for the clan of owls. With their enormous gold or amber eyes and strangely human way of bobbing their heads, they are irresistible. Among “ordinary” birds like songbirds, I vote for the magpie robin for its wonder flute concerts first thing in the morning and parakeets, wacky, gossipy and brainy, who can hold coaching classes in romance! For sheer glamour, there’s monal pheasant.

Amid the carnivores, it’s the tiger — bit of a cliché but really there’s nothing to match it. A leopard comes very close as does the snow leopard — and then there’s that consummate high-jumper, the caracal.

As for the big vegans, the winner is the rhino — irascible, unpredictable, and yet, baby-faced — able to turn 360 degrees as lightly as a ballerina. Elephants, too, are sagacious and mostly gentle, except when in musth, when they are rampaging terrors.

Finally, our close relatives, the apes: a tie for top place between gorillas (for their dignity and gravity) and orangutans (sheer charm) followed by the exuberant long-armed singers — gibbons. The chimpanzees come in last because they’re just a bit too much like us to make the cut! Of course, there are creatures that get the thumbs down, but we’ll meet them next week.

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