Evolution: The first 2.5 billion years were boring
Science has determined single-celled organisms appeared on Earth roughly four billion years ago, and that for the next 2.5 billion years that’s all there was. I’m pretty sure our planet got a little bored towards the end there. But once multicellular life did show up, it was restricted to water, and so it was another billion years before anything interesting slithered onto dry land. More recently, that is, over the last 400 million years or so, the whole planetary creation process looks like it has gotten a lot more enjoyable than in those early times.
Take platypuses, (or platypodes if you want the correct Greek pedantic plural, and a Scrabble advantage), for example. With all due respect to these amazing animals, just the sight of one can provoke mirth. You have to wonder if Mother Nature shopped at Ikea when creating the animals, and after they had all been assembled, there was a little pile of washers, bolts and animal parts left over on the workbench. It must have seemed a shame to waste them, and so with a little force, and probably a stapler, they fit together (more or less) to form an adorable, egg-laying muskrat-duck combo.
“Like giving Peter Rabbit poison fangs”
And the hilarity doesn’t stop there. These docile-looking, essentially toothless creatures are venomous. It’s like giving Peter Rabbit poison fangs. The male has a pair of leg spurs that can deliver a cysteine-rich protein cocktail potent enough to kill a dog, and to cause severe and long-lasting pain in humans. To be fair to the platypus, it is not aggressive in the least. Perhaps evolution had interns doing the design work back in the day, because although the female platypus has a matched set of ovaries, only the left one works. Ever. This left-ovary issue puzzled me until I realized, of course—the beast was likely made from leftovers.
Old Ma Nature must have been in the mood for a visual gag when the pangolin, a golden-brown, armor-plated insectivore native to parts of Africa and Asia, was invented. It’s like she got an aardvark to mate with a globe artichoke to produce a scaly, thick-tailed creature with a defensive skunk-like spray and the ability to ball itself up like a pill bug when threatened. While it resembles armadillos and anteaters, not to mention dragons, DNA testing indicates it may be more closely related to cats. (If the dragon genome ever gets mapped I’m sure it will prove to be related to these as well).
“The planet got a billion-year head start experimenting with making slimy stuff”
Marine life, of course, is deeply bizarre, as the planet got a billion-year head start experimenting with making slimy stuff. Really, I find it remarkable that people actually swim in the sea. Why Mother Nature stocked the oceans with nightmares like glow-in-the-dark anglerfish and vampire squid is beyond me. And those are the benign ones. She has cone snails which deliver a tiny sting you don’t feel until a few days later, just before you die. Deadly box jellyfish, lethal stonefish, Portuguese man-o-war—if you ask me, the surf is kind of a La Brea Tar Pits for drunk college kids on break and old guys in Speedos. Which in the latter case may be acceptable.
There is a sea worm called Eunice aphroditois which owns lightning reflexes, and razor-sharp scissors for jaws. And it’s big—a recently discovered specimen in Japan measured nearly ten feet long. Affectionately dubbed the Bobbitt worm, this lovely is capable of slicing corals and fish clean in half. For larger prey, animals many times its size on occasion, it injects a powerful toxin that can reportedly numb a human permanently. (How that is known, I haven’t a clue, although I have certainly met people who appeared so afflicted.)
Octopuses, or octopodes if you like, are the envy of Cirque du Soleil with their ability to change shape, color and texture at will, and even shed an arm-tip if they slam it in a car door or something. Their 1,600 suction cups have evolved to escape from aquariums, but also to smell, and to store memories (Don’t ask me how this works—National Geographic prints it and I just pass it along). Recently we have been told these intelligent creatures were seen using tools, which is great news because we know who to hire for home repairs. They’re adept at building shelters out of coconut shells right now, but who knows—they might get the hang of impact drivers and belt sanders if you give them the chance.
“At that age, guys have the emotional maturity of a turnip”
Hammering together weird life-forms for fun is one thing; messing around with their behavior is another. Consider the fact that human females have the strongest drive to start a family—that is, the highest estrogen levels—in their late twenties and early thirties, while males have the highest testosterone around eighteen. At that age, guys have the emotional maturity of a turnip, at best. So how was this arrangement intended to work out for the continuation of our species? Maybe so-called “cougars” are part of the natural order. Honestly, though, I think it was just for yuks. Evolution works nicely, but can be kind of tedious. Even the forces of nature need a good laugh sometimes.
Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.