Monday, September 7, 2009

For the Stick, It Should've Been Automatic

We ate dinner last night at a Red Lobster in Long Branch, NJ. I had parked the car in the only available space in the main lot: at the end of a row, where stood some large bushes on the adjacent curb. Several of the bushes' branches protruded to within about a foot of the car. Upon returning to the car after our meal, I discovered a four-inch-long stick insect perched motionless on the driver's-side window.

Over aeons, stick insects have, of course, evolved as masters of camouflage. Most species' primary defense is to look so much like a twig that hungry predators never detect them. Obviously, it's worked well for millions of years.

Needless to say, I was surprised to find a stick insect on the car window—a surface that offers no visual protection and fully exposes such a large insect to both predator and perturbed human. Now, I have respect for life and gently shooed the creature off the window. But many people—especially after the adrenalin rush of cracking open a crustacean—would have reacted harshly and swatted, slammed, or squashed the stick insect to death. Frankly, the stick insect's behavior belied its reputation for cleverness, and it was lucky to have survived such a stupid decision.

In all fairness, a stick insect possesses a brain of, maybe, half a nanogram—but such foolish behavior should be an instinctual no-no. Like opening an umbrella stand in the middle of the's something you just don't do. So even though they have carved out a highly successful ecological niche across the ages, it's no wonder that stick insects have failed to evolve beyond their twiggy exoskeleton: they're simply not that bright. According to fossil records, stick insects have been around for at least 23 million years, so you'd figure that, following the normal pattern of evolution, they would have made something of themselves and, by now, at least resemble trees...or have even progressed toward something of higher intelligence—I daresay, perhaps even a bipedal form. I'm no genetic entomologist, but a simple change of diet from leaves to meat would have—as in early humans—enlarged their microscopic brain and put stick insects on a much more rewarding evolutionary course. Even noshing on a katydid once in a while could have made all the difference. Is biophysiological improvement so unpalatable? Instead of being stuck as the pansies of the bug world—playing dead or remaining perfectly still whenever a predator enters the neighborhood—stick insects perhaps could now be our evolutionary counterpart:Although this theory* has met with criticism ranging from "That's impossible" to "Stop calling, you idiot!" we've all seen what a switch to a protein-rich meat diet did for Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull. You don't get the Oscar for Best Actor by eating privet leaves.

*For a detailed analysis of this theory, see Why the Steak at Red Lobster Is Pretty Good and Other Thoughts: A Text Message to the Corporate Office (personal communication; September 6, 2009).

But that's not all for the animal kingdom.

I further posit that the llama—long believed South American in origin—in fact migrated to South America from Wales. My proof? Did you ever look at a map of Wales? The double-l—so characteristic of the llama—is found all over the Welsh nation: Llandrindod Wells, Llangollen, Llandovery, Llangefni, and at least 267 other towns and villages. True, the digraph ll as the first two letters of a word or place-name is also charateristic of Spanish and several of Spain's regional dialects, and a multitude of villages beginning with Ll are found throughout South America, but Spanish and related dialects have only been spoken in South America since the arrival of the Conquistadors, whereas the llama has been roaming South America for several million years.

So how did the llama migrate from Wales to South America? Similar to Beringia, a land bridge between Wales and the east coast of South America may have existed during ice ages, when sea levels dropped dramatically. Admittedly, my calculations show that for the extreme distance between Wales and South America to have been exposed, the Atlantic Ocean would have had to dissipate to the volume of a half-gallon container of Deer Park, but I may just be remembering the tables of measures incorrectly.

Further supporting this claim is the not-insignificant fact that Episode 9 of Monty Python's Flying Circus begins with "The Llama Sketch," in which John Cleese sings (in Spanish) about the virtues of the llama, backed by Eric Idle and Terry Jones. Terry Jones (on right) is from Colwyn Bay, Wales. That the three Pythons are singing in Spanish about the llama may be irony far over the heads of anyone not in the know.

And if that weren't enough evidence, the final twenty seconds of the opening credits of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which were completed in an entirely different style at great expense and at the last minute) are replete with llama references. The Holy Grail was directed by the Welshman Terry Jones, and since he had final say in the content of those llama-laden credits, I can only surmise that Jones has a strong affinity for the animal that is ostensibly native to his land.

In phase II of these studies, empirical data will be collected from my couch with the aid of a six of Buckleys Best Bitter.

Future anthropological topics on Mount Drinkmore may include the cantaloupe's evolution to the antelope as well as a review of back pain in invertebrates.

(Second photo of stick insect copyright National Geographic Society; photo of llama copyright National Picture Library; photo of "The Llama Sketch" copyright Python (Monty) Pictures.)

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