Animal quirks

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Gelada baboons in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. The focus of the scientific study is on how they share a rather curious relationship with a large predator in the area. Photo: AP

Some of the most fascinating stories about animal behaviour and the science behind it told with panache.

IT was 5 p.m., a hurried time in general for journalists in newsrooms as they prepare to file their stories for the day. But on August 9 almost three years ago at precisely that time, I was beaming through the rush: the story I was writing about that day was utterly fascinating. The scientist K.S. Seshadri and his colleague had just discovered that the white-spotted bush frog, a small frog found only in the Agastya hills of the southern Western Ghats of India, tends to its eggs, helping them hatch. Nothing unusual: some frogs do care for their eggs. What was intriguing was that it was the male frog that displayed this behaviour.

These tiny, thumbnail-sized males hole up in bamboo hollows (they have to first choose the right hollows carefully), sit by (and sometimes on) their precious eggs for 37 days straight, and ward off cannibalistic frogs in a unique display of parental care. When scientists removed some of these father frogs, they found that the eggs did not survive: other frogs of the same species gobbled them up or insects or fungi got to them. There were several other nuances to the story, of course, but it was a wow-moment that I still clearly recall, frogs, eggs, deadlines and all.

This wow-worthy story of doting frog fathers, and how scientists unravelled it in 2017, is among the 50 fascinating essays—on intriguing animal behaviour across the world and the science behind it—that find place in author Janaki Lenin’s most recent book, Every Creature Has a Story.

Choosing the best

“What kind of essays made it into this collection Every Creature Has a Story? Only one criterion—Did it make me go ‘WOW’,” tweeted Janaki Lenin a few days after the launch of the book on July 27. The strength of the book is that she has so expertly communicated this wow-factor through her effortlessly lucid, inimitable style, reflected in each of the short, 1,000-odd word essays listed in the book. Even if you are no fan of animals, you will be hooked; the stories she writes about are astonishing, intriguing, sometimes funny and thought-provoking. Janaki Lenin writes in the introduction that the 50 essays, chosen from the 90 column articles she wrote for The Wire, have been polished and updated for publication in Every Creature Has a Story.

The choice of the most fascinating stories of behaviour in the animal world makes the book unputdownable. It is full of exciting enigmas, some that science has solved, some it is yet to. Parents that pee on their babies, ant ambulance services and first-aid, wild dogs that vote to come to an agreement, rodents that shrink their bones and regrow them, birds that “pay rent” for future property inheritance by helping with childcare: the list is long. While the essays give us a peek into how science has tried to understand some of the most fascinating quirks of animal behaviour, they also touch on what we are yet to learn about them and the many new questions that each new finding opens up.

Janaki Lenin links many of these intriguing and often bizarre behaviours to the bigger picture, too. Such as the odd-looking kiwi’s unusual nostrils located on the tip of its long bill and how a resulting behavioural quirk could make it more susceptible to predators that could ultimately affect the survival of the species. Or how another nose, that of an Antarctic fur seal, and the animal’s sense of smell could be the ‘saviour’ of the species in more ways than one.

While Janaki Lenin has chosen to tell many intriguing, less-heard-of stories such as the bizarre one about lizards that can actually change their sex (“sex reassignment”, as she calls it), there are those that feature the more well-known behaviours as well, such as the ability of chimpanzees to use tools and male seahorses that give birth to live young. Some of the species featured in these stories are the ones we know well from infotainment television, too, such as the giraffe or the gelada baboon (one of the world’s most terrestrial primates).

But Janaki Lenin highlights the behaviours or associations that not many would have heard about. In the case of the gelada baboons, for instance, the focus is on how they share a rather curious relationship with a large predator in the area. And the science behind this, even the many theories that scientists think would be worth testing to study these behaviours further, finds space in the stories as well. There is physics, chemistry and lots of biology in these tales; as well as genetics and ecological concepts such as evolution, kin selection and altruism. And one of them features a plant as a creature, too.

“Before anyone points out I made a mistake in including a plant among these ‘creatures’, let me say there are no discrete categories in nature,” she cautions in the introduction. “It leaks, overflows, overlaps and intrudes across man-made boundaries.”

Fascinating storytelling

What makes these science stories even more fascinating is the way she tells them: simply and tempered with a bit of humour and clever word-play. Strong, punchy sentences are a prominent feature. Like in this section, one of the opening paragraphs about the Darwin’s bark spider (Caerostris darwini) of Madagascar:

“Scientists discovered this native of Madagascar in 2010 and named it in honour of Charles Darwin on the 150th anniversary of his work On the Origin of Species. Since then, they have realised this is one extraordinary spider. The females spin the world’s largest web, covering up to 2.8 square metres, an area larger than a 100-inch flat-screen television. The orbs’ anchor lines stretch up to twenty-five metres across rivers and streams. Their silk is the toughest biomaterial in the world, ten times stronger than bullet-proof Kevlar. On this sturdy silken hammock, the spiders engage in bizarre sex.”

Or the deceptively simple line which effortlessly describes the rather complex functioning of the chameleon’s eye: “Each eye is controlled by the opposite side of the brain so the brain's left hemisphere knows what the right eye is doing, and the right hemisphere the left.”

In Every Creature Has a Story, there’s no shirking away from the fun–and duty–of describing the experiments that scientists devised to study these fascinating behaviours either. Janaki Lenin’s elegant explanations of the scientists’ efforts, denuded of jargon and detailed in easily comprehendable steps, are interspersed with just the right amount of background information you would need to process and understand them. Undeniably, they play an instrumental role in the marvel you will experience at the culmination of each piece. As do some richly detailed descriptions, and chuckle-worthy kickers that will leave you with a smile at the end of many of the essays.

But Janaki Lenin does not spoonfeed her readers or dumb science down: you will have to do some of your homework, like look up what alleles are, for instance, if you do not already know. So as a reader, each story requires different levels of investment. In some (rare) cases, you might even long for a longer treatment of a story because by the time you settle into the plot and sort out its nuances, the story is over.

The pages of Every Creature Has a Story sped by incredibly quickly The intriguing stories about bearded capuchin monkeys in Brazil that use stones of a specific size and kind as nut-smashers to get to cashew kernels and “Music in the Wild”, a tale about how male palm cockatoos fashion instruments to make music, are delightful gems. I was almost crestfallen when I reached the last essay: I wanted more.

I hope Janaki Lenin is planning a sequel to Every Creature Has a Story, just like with My Husband and Other Animals.

Aathira Perinchery is an independent science and environmental journalist.

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