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There’s grace and rhythm in every movement of the animal world

Whether they live on land or underwater, or spend much of their lives in the sky, most living creatures look great moving in their element.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
Updated: August 16, 2015 1:00:25 am
Whether they live on land or underwater, or spend much of their lives in the sky, most living creatures look great moving in their element. Whether they live on land or underwater, or spend much of their lives in the sky, most living creatures look great moving in their element.

Whether they live on land or underwater, or spend much of their lives in the sky, most living creatures look great moving in their element. Take the land-dwelling animals, for instance; even the ones that creep and freak us out. There’s an undeniable grace in the way in which snakes sinuously flow over the ground (or, for that matter, swim), matched by the heart-stopping flickering of their tongues (I could watch sidewinders all day). There’s nothing as wow as a cheetah at full lick or the leaps and bounds and deft feints of the antelope it’s chasing — who if (and when) it wins the race, will frisk its whisk of a tail about and cock an eyebrow as if saying, “Hah, I told you so! You can’t catch me! And I’m not even panting!” Herds of zebra or even those goofy-looking wildebeest have a certain drumming rhythm to their en masse gallops — and racehorses and steeplechasers take your breath away every time you watch them thunder past. Look at the fluid, liquid way leopards, or, for that matter, housecats, leap up trees, usually hoisting meals heavier than they are. As for monkeys, chimps and especially gibbons, there’s nothing to beat their languid lithe lope through the trees. Mountain goats and bharials leap down thousand metre-vertical cliff faces while trying to butt each other off them at the same time. In every case, there is timing, perfection and a breathtaking grace in every move they make.

Even the big, clumsy looking mastodons, the elephant and rhino, for example, are lovely to watch. Elephants sashay (there’s no other word for it) along, swaying and musing as they go and rhinos are a gorgeous rolling beauty when they begin to rumble and charge (not at you, of course!). Kangaroos boing (again, there’s no other word, really) across Australian flatlands, maintaining balance with their massive tails and never falling on their faces.

It’s the same story underwater. Schools of silver sardines, a million strong, choreograph their movements perfectly (and often in vain) to keep predators confused. The shark is, of course, the ultimate killing-machine in design and movement. The manta ray flies through the deep blue like a caped angel (of death to some), and flying fish leap out like showers of silver arrows making you gasp. Deep in the depths, the octopus languidly stretches its tentacles behind it and flows along before insinuating its way into rock cracks, where it awaits its meals. There’s sheer deadly beauty in the gossamer shifting veil of jellyfish — just touch a silken tentacle and you’re done for. Watch seahorses court and you’ll want to set music to their movements. More prosaically, just watch the delicacy with which your goldfish swishes its translucent tail while swimming around a conch in its tank.

The air-breathers which have made the water their natural habitat are equally graceful, whether its turtles, otters, seals, walruses, sea-lions, penguins or frogs. Turtles swim swiftly, their flippers propelling them along, buoyed by the water, the seals, walruses, sea lions, otters and penguins streak like underwater missiles and torpedoes. Otters add a comic touch by floating on their backs as if on waterbeds, and eating their meals which they place on their tummies All are, of course, hilariously hopeless while moving on land: turtles flap desperately, using their flippers to “swim” across the sand, walruses and seals slam their chins on the beach and grunt like tennis players, penguins (some of whom have long overland marches) waddle, desperately trying not to fall over backwards (while you try desperately not to fall over laughing) and frogs actually seem relieved to plop into the water and get back to a relaxing breast-stroke.

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There’s beauty and magnificence in the sky too. Whether it’s the tiny hummingbird, blurring in front of a bloom, a falcon twisting and then swooping at 320 kmph, an eagle screaming down on its hapless victim, crows balancing on the back of a speeding garbage truck, or a squadron of rosy-starlings in a “smoke-swirl” display of massed flight, you can’t help but gasp. Even a rock dove, executing a vertical take-off can make your heart skip a beat, while the sight of great echelons of geese or cranes in V-formation brings a strange calmness to it as it synchronises to the rhythm of the birds’ wings.

We miss a lot of the beauty of flight because we actually don’t see it. We can’t see the twisting and turning of a fly’s mother-of-pearl wings as it launches off, and all we hear is the mosquito’s shrill whine as it negotiates our ear. Happily, we can appreciate the dragonfly’s acrobatics, the way the hoverflies hold their position rock still, and the happy hop-skip waywardness of butterflies on rainbow wings.

And finally, there’s us. We walk, foolishly swinging our arms back and forth, only a few look good and at ease doing so. When we sprint or jump, we look desperate; when we run marathons, very unhappy indeed. While dancing, we look like we’re being tasered by an American traffic cop (If the dance has any aesthetic merit whatsoever, it’s usually been pinched from the courting dance of some animal or bird) Swimming, well, no, not with the mouth gaping for air desperately every other stroke. We can’t fly, period.

So why do animals look so good while making their moves? Probably, because their survival depends on it and so they have plenty of practice. Maybe, that’s why only gymnasts look good: a lot of practice and death or injury if you fall — or in some countries, if you fail to get a 10 and win gold. As for the rest of us, well, nowadays, our lives depend on twiddling our thumbs at top speed and there’s no way we can look good doing that.

Texting, I mean.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher

The story appeared in print with the headline They’ve Got the Moves

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