The Nature Corner: The meek shall inherit the Earth?

Published 10:17 am Saturday, February 5, 2022

By Ernie Marshall

In various columns I have mentioned the largest, the blue whale, larger than even the most gigantic of the dinosaurs; the fastest, the peregrine falcon, traveling at over 200 miles per hour in a dive, and the cheetah running on land at 70 miles per hour; and the oldest, discussed in my column on aging. I have also written on animal intelligence. I think it is time the “little guys” should have their turn.

So, what might be said about the smallest, slowest, shortest lived and dumbest? This

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The microbial organisms are the smallest, invisible to the naked/unaided human eye. The microscope was not invented until around 1600. Before then, nobody knew these minute creatures existed. Hence the microscope opened a whole new world and made modern medicine possible, since bacteria and other microbes are the cause of numerous infectious diseases. (The telescope was invented about the same time and, in the hands of Galileo, created the science of astronomy.)

In recent times, much more has been learned about these microbes and their evolutionary history, resulting in the recognition of at least three more Kingdoms of living organisms: Procaryotes, bacteria which do not have their genetic material organized as a nucleus of the cell; Eucaryotes that do contain cell nuclei; and Fungi.

This advance to cells with nuclei was passed on from eucaryote microorganisms to plants and animals. Having cell nuclei made the differentiation of sexes and their exchange of genetic traits possible, one of the drivers of natural selection and the creation of novel species.

Recognizing Fungi as a separate Kingdom of organisms, makes more sense of ways in which Fungi are like and unlike both plants and animals. Fungi do not produce their food by photosynthesis like green plants, but like plants are rooted in an organic substrate. Fungi are saprophytes, consuming the tissue of dead organisms, such as the shelf fungi covering fallen, decaying trees. They, along with bacteria and other creatures, provide the cleanup squad that recycles nature back to the soil needed to begin anew.

Let us get back to microorganisms. A typical bacterium is about the tenth of the size of a single human cell and a virus about a tenth of the size of a bacterium. To get some perspective, the human body consists of about 37.2 trillion cells.

Tiny but mighty creatures given their impact both for human good and ill.

How about the slowest? Among these are the box turtle at 0.25 mph and the garden snail at 0.03 mph. My wife taught middle school math for 30 years, but kind of threw up her hands at how to render these numbers meaningful. We got this fix on a sloth, which in its days foraging might cover 41 yards, less than half the length of a football field. I don’t think its team will win any touchdowns. (Words have entered our language referring to these traits, such as “snail’s pace,” “snail mail,” “sluggish” (a slug being essentially a snail without a shell) and “sloth,” meaning roughly “laziness.”)

But these traits might be a successful adaptation to its environment. A box turtle cannot move fast, nor does it need to, because it is encased in armor, two shells of bone, carapace and plastron, that it can close so tightly you cannot even wedge a pen knife between them.

The rule of survival in nature seems to be freeze, flight or fight. But in addition to this some animals have “superpowers.” That of the box turtle is to turn itself into a safety deposit box. (The first time my dog encountered this, he was totally flummoxed.) A skunk has a very noxious spray that it can aim rather accurately, a porcupine is covered in sharp quills that release themselves and work their way painfully into a would be predator’s flesh, venomous snakes have a potentially deadly bite and monarch butterflies – from egg to adult – contain potent toxins they acquire by eating milkweed plants. Predators learn to avoid these animals.

Getting a handle on “dumbest” is difficult because humans tend to think of themselves as the intelligent species and all the others as dumb by comparison. But is this true? The long distance seasonal migration of many bird species is one of many cases to consider. If we are so smart, why can’t we figure out how they do it? Memorizing land features, orienting by the sun and stars are part of the complex picture, but there is much else to comprehend. And they do it all without map or compass, much less GPS. (Consider is that device called a “smart phone” because you have to be smart to use it, or because it is smart and we are basically dumb without it?)

There was an expression “dumb as a dodo,” because one could walk right up to one and kill it with a stick. They were a turkey-sized flightless bird found only on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The bird had no fear of humans, because it had evolved on an island where it had no natural enemies, nothing that would harm it. When humans arrived, the bird was “harvested” until none remained and the bird was extinct.

Perhaps nature’s way of judging smart and dumb is whether or not a species successfully adapts to it environment. Is the dodo dumb? It had successfully adapted to its environment. It was thriving until humans showed up and changed everything.

Humans will need to adapt to big changes on our planet in the future, climate change, increasing air, water and soil pollution and more. Will we be smart about facing these problems, or turn out to be a dumb species?

Ernie Marshall taught at East Carolina College for thirty-two years and had a home in Hyde County near Swan Quarter. He has done extensive volunteer work at the Mattamuskeet, Pocosin Lakes and Swan Quarter refuges and was chief script writer for wildlife documentaries by STRS Productions on the coastal U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, mostly located on the Outer Banks. Questions or comments? Contact the author at marshalle1922@gmail.com.

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