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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Down in jungleland: Beauty and the beasts

Turns out that in nature, too, beauty is not merely skin deep, but a factor in survival.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Updated: June 19, 2016 1:30:49 am
Beauty with brains: Flowers turn out in the most vivid colours and shapes so they’ll be visited by anything that’ll help pollinate them Beauty with brains: Flowers turn out in the most vivid colours and shapes so they’ll be visited by anything that’ll help pollinate them

Beauty in nature gobsmacks most normal, sensible people (politicians and industrialists don’t posses the relevant gene). Whether it’s a mountain range glittering in the moonlight, a kaleidoscopic coral reef, golden dunes of a desert, verdant tropical rainforests, clouds drifting though hill forests, a stunning sunrise or sunset, we generally stop and stare. Then of course, there are the animals and birds, insects and fish, trees and flowers, mushrooms (which excite us for other reasons) and weird wonders of the deep. It takes our breath away, and we swear to protect it like we do, perhaps, the Mona Lisa or a Van Gogh (sadly, we don’t because those in charge are often politicians and industrialists). We photograph and paint scenaries, go into a trance, meditate and write lovely poetry about nature. We rave and rant (usually to little effect) when politicians and industrialists want to create open cast mines, and gaunt, dust-bowl factories that spew toxic waste — natural beauty does something marvellous to our spirits.

Does it similarly lift the spirits of all other living things? The animals and birds, et al. Do they recognise beauty when they see it, the way we do? Of course, you will snort, they do: why else do the males of so many species deck themselves up to the nines when they want a partner? The female knows a handsome dude when she sees one, and goes with the beefiest beefcake around (Sorry about the “b” word). Scientists tell us that the females generally go for the strongest, healthiest specimen of the lot, so that their progeny inherit the best. And, of course, it so happens that the strongest and healthiest are also the most handsome: with their knockout colours, muscles that ripple like the waves of the ocean, and fur that shines like a shampoo advertisement, they cast about with arrogance and sheer disdain for those less endowed than themselves. Sometimes, of course, they have to prove this in combat and often emerge looking not quite as handsome as before, but well that’s a risk that has to be taken.

But do they recognise beauty outside their own species, and in nature in general? Does a tiger in Ranthambore pause on the walls of the Jogi Mahal and stare at the lovely lakes and landscape and go, “Wow! What a place to live in!” Does a snow leopard stand on a ridgetop and stare at the mountains, and murmur, “If there was a paradise…”? For that matter, does a lioness in the Serengeti eye a gazelle strutting its stuff and nods slowly, saying, “Good cut, that’s the one for dinner!”? Again, you might say yes: that lioness will recognise the beefcake gazelle, but will rule him out for dinner. He’s good-looking (no, never “cute”, that appalling appellation is only used by hyperventilating young things to describe the guys they dig), but that means he’s healthy, and he’ll run like mad and probably get away. The lioness will be left behind, panting and heaving in the dust, looking like a fool in front of daddy cool out there, lying in the shade, shaking out his mane and waiting for dinner. So better pick some limping fool with a matted coat, who can’t get away. Or even a baby.

We know this as one of the laws of nature: survival of the fittest, and by default, therefore, handsomest. So yes, the predators in a sense do recognise beauty, and actually protect it.

But that stud gazelle and all of his kind, the grazing, cud-chewing, bhola-bhala vegans they do just the opposite. They go for the most luscious, juiciest, most verdant plants they can find. The prettiest, brightest flowers are chomped up. Which self-respecting elephant or chital or nilgai or buffalo will go in for a dry, desiccated husk of a plant, if there’s rich green stuff lying around? Which wretched rhesus macaque will go for anything else, when there are beds of multi-coloured flowers tempting in your garden?

And, now, there’s a twist in this tale. Flowers turn out in the most vivid colours and shapes, precisely so they’ll be visited by anything that’ll help pollinate them (but not monkeys) — flies, bats, bees, wasps, birds, small mammals — it doesn’t matter, provided the job is done, no matter what the sacrifice. Fruits do the same — bite into us and we’ll transport you to heaven, swallow our seeds, but run along quickly and have a dump a long way off so we can start over far away from our overweening parents. That’s beauty with brains!

There’s yet another little twist that needs mention: the praying mantis is commonly, an anorexic looking green insect with huge pea-like eyes, a cruel chinless face, and horribly barbed forearms with which she hugs her victims while chewing off their heads. There are hundreds of species, and amongst them is the orchid mantis. This one is gorgeous, perfectly imitating the white orchid plant she lives on. So when insects hum along for their dose of nectar and pollen, she waits, undetected. The thing is she’s prettier than a normal orchid. So, when say, a bee hums by and spots her, it is, well, gobsmacked, and heads straight for her. This means that though the insects fall for this, they are also able to choose between pretty, prettier and prettiest!

And that evil mantis knows that by outclassing its host in the looks department, it’ll always have a full tummy: beauty and the beastie at work!

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.

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