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Bestiary

by Thomas Wharton


Courtship

In 1816 the French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville married Adélie Pepin, the daughter of a Toulon clockmaker. Adélie was openly disliked by Dumont’s mother, who thought her unsuitable for her son and denied his request for a family heirloom ring to present to his bride on their wedding day. The explorer’s mother in fact refused to meet Adélie and, later on, her grandsons from the marriage.

On his Antarctic expedition, Dumont took special notice of a particular species of penguin, with a characteristic white circle around the eyes, that he found in abundance on the coast. Dumont was at first dumbfounded and then charmed to observe the penguins sliding and diving and playing in the water. The birds’carefree, happy frolics amid the icy hostility of their surroundings put him in mind of the early days of his marriage, when the joy he shared with his new bride took place under the cloud of his mother’s disapproval. Accordingly he named the penguin, and the region they inhabited, after Adélie.

Shortly after his return home, on 8 May 1842, Dumont and his family took a train from Versailles to Paris after attending water games held in honor of the king. Near Meudon the train’s locomotive derailed, and the tender’s load of burning coal spilled onto the cars and caught fire. Dumont, Adélie, and their children died in the flames of the first French railway disaster.

During the breeding season from October to February, Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) congregate in colonies of up to a quarter of a million pairs. The males arrive at the breeding ground first and begin to build shallow nests out of small stones lined with feathers, before the females arrive a few days later. When in search of a mate, the male Adélie penguin will sometimes carry a nesting pebble to the feet of the chosen female. The female signals her assent by engaging with the male in a swaying, belly-to-belly mating dance, accompanied by much cooing.

Unlike their human counterparts, female Adélie penguins do not keep or display the stone that says I desire you.


Mind Control

The parasitic fungus Ordiochordyceps unilateralis was discovered by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859, during his researches in Malaysia. The noteworthy means of propagation of this fungus was influential in Wallace’s working out of what he called the organic law of change, more familiar to us now, through its co-discoverer Charles Darwin, as the theory of natural selection.

The fungus infects ants of the tropical Camponotini tribe, affecting their nervous systems in such a way that the ants, zombie-like, are compelled to leave their canopy nests for the forest floor, where temperature and humidity are the most hospitable for fungal growth. Once they have reached their destination the ants affix themselves by their mandibles to the underside of leaves and cling there in a death grip. After several days, fruiting bodies of the fungus erupt from the ants’ heads, casting its spores in search of other Camponotini ants to parasitize.

The strategy employed by this mere fungus seemed so insidious and purposeful that at first Wallace doubted his own observations. When he was finally convinced of what he was seeing, he shared his strange discovery with an Anglican missionary stationed in the region, the Rev. Hugh Mandeville.

When I finally grasped what Wallace was endeavouring to show me, Mandeville wrote in his memoirs decades later, I confess my first feeling was of pity for the ants. Afterwards, strangely enough, this feeling extended to the fungus, and, it should also be noted, to myself.


Captivity

Several years ago the Calgary Zoo, on an island in the Bow River, was threatened by a massive flood. Most of the inmates had to be moved to higher ground or to other animal facilities in and around the city. There were a few casualties. During the rescue operations a free-roaming peacock eluded its keepers by flying up into a tree and was later found dead. Several tropical fish died when the flooding cut the power to their tank and the water temperature could no longer be regulated.

To summarize: the bird did not survive taking to the air, and water killed the fish.


Man’s Best Friend

Hundreds of dogs, for decades now, have killed themselves by plunging off a bridge in Dumbarton, Scotland. People who’ve witnessed one of these suicidal leaps report that the dog gave no outward sign of distress or madness but simply climbed the bridge parapet as if going about its ordinary canine business and casually leapt to its death on the rocks below. In a few cases it has also been observed that the dog survived the fall, climbed back up onto the bridge and, without the slightest hesitation, threw itself off again.

Although it has not been possible to keep accurate records, the most commonly reported breeds are the working dogs: collies, hounds, sheepdogs.

It is also not known how many hundreds or thousands have come to the bridge over the years with the same intent but turned back at the last moment, choosing instead to go on enduring the life of a dog.


Teaching Opportunity

On the seashore at Laguna, Brazil, an alliance has grown between resident bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and local fishers. The dolphins herd schools of small, silver fish called mullets toward the shore, where lines of wading fishers gather and wait in readiness. When the dolphins get close to the people they give a signal by slapping their heads or tails against the surf. The fishers immediately cast their nets and draw in scores of the frenzied, confused mullet.

According to marine biologists studying the phenomenon, only one-third of the lagoon’s more than fifty dolphins regularly take part in the herding activity. Some of these dolphins have been given nicknames by the locals, such as Salvador, Pele, and Tonto. The rest of the dolphins keep to themselves, do no herding, and avoid the fishers.

It is not clear to the researchers how the cooperative dolphins benefit from their efforts. Researchers have seen dolphin mothers here in Laguna gently nudging their offspring toward mullet, as if giving them lessons in herding fish. It’s not known whether this behaviour is instinctual, or learned and intentional, which would indicate that the dolphins have what could be called a “culture,” much in the way that the Laguna fishers teach their children how to distinguish the helpful dolphins from the others.

Many of the area’s fishers are unable to catch mullet without the aid of the dolphins, meaning that their livelihood depends entirely on these intelligent marine mammals.“If we lose our friends the dolphins,” one of the fishers said, “we lose our way of life.”


Deployment

The Chinese military’s most vaunted jet fighters, the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31, are protected from accidental bird strikes by a squadron of male rhesus macaques trained to find and destroy bird nests near airfields around Beijing. The monkeys were not caught in the wild but had previously belonged to itinerant street performers, which made them relatively easy to train and redeploy as military assets.

The airfields are located along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, according to military personnel who spoke with state media. Large numbers of migrating birds, heedless of national borders, pass through the area in March every year and begin nesting and breeding, which creates a safety hazard for the jet fighters and their pilots during training maneuvers.

The People’s Liberation Army’s Bird Control Division has taught the macaques to scramble up trees and dismantle nests by pulling out twigs. Airbase commander Wang Yuejian told China Daily: “Our reconnaissance indicates that two monkeys alone have taken out over 180 nests in the past month.” One of the monkeys’ trainers at another airbase called the monkey operation an “ecological solution” compared to more destructive methods such as blasting the birds with water cannons.

The destruction of the nests was deemed necessary so that the valuable and rarely-seen jet fighters would be safe and ready for the ceremonies in Beijing marking the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. The celebration included a parade of tanks through Tiananmen Square and an airshow.


Contrivance

Researchers studying bonobos at a zoo in Wuppertal, Germany observed the apes making and using tools. The researchers presented the bonobos with various problems that required tools to solve, such as caches of food buried under rocks. The apes quickly learned to use branches and pieces of antler to dig or to move stones. One bonobo was observed using a stone as a hammer to break apart a long bone lengthwise, a technique previously thought to be unique to early humans. Other tools made by these smaller, less aggressive relatives of the chimpanzee included shovels, mattocks, levers, daggers, and scrapers, all made from modified or unmodified stone, wood, and bone. In some cases the animals used various tools in sequence to complete a task.

On one occasion a female bonobo named Eja sharpened the end of a long straight stick with her teeth. It was assumed this was some sort of new digging tool, until Eja unexpectedly jabbed it through the bars of her enclosure at one of the researchers. Moments before this unprovoked attack, Eja had sat down near the bars and calmly, almost meditatively, began peeling the bark off the sharpened stick, as if she’d lost interest in all the tool-making and problem-solving and simply wanted some quiet time by herself for a while.

The researcher was startled by the attack but fortunately unharmed. Not long after this incident Eja was observed eagerly making more spears.


As a Warning to Others

Police in the Tower Hamlets area of London began an investigation after a video was posted online that appeared to show a masked gang beating a fox to death. The clip, which was briefly available on a number of social media sites before being removed, showed the drugged, sluggish fox followed by a number of masked, cricket bat-wielding figures. They take turns hitting the animal with the bats, and when it finally stops moving they parade their kill before the camera.

The attack followed a wave of media-fuelled anti-fox hysteria in response to the savaging of two infants, twin girls, by a fox that entered their home in the East End.

According to their website, the fox-killers are a “collective from Victoria Park” who “hate foxes” and are “doing something about it.”


In Which the Author Appears

During the time I was working on this story, I observed a spider’s web taking shape in a corner of my apartment balcony. Over several weeks in late summer, the web filled with the silk-wrapped remains of snared flies and other insects, but the web’s creator remained unseen until one afternoon in early fall. It was an unusually warm day and I was out on the balcony with a book to escape the stifling heat in the apartment. As I was reading I happened to glance up at the corner, and there she was. I say she because of the prominent, swollen abdomen, which suggested this was a female who would soon be giving birth.

I live in the northernmost major city in Canada, and I’d never seen an arachnid anywhere near this large here. I’d never even imagined they could grow to such a size this far north.

The spider was sitting in the very center of her web. She was so large that at first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I got up for a closer look. The spider appeared to be wrapping, or perhaps unwrapping, one of her cocooned meals. Her body was a mottled black and grey, with long, nimble, articulate legs that reminded me of fingers typing slowly and steadily on a keyboard. Her movements radiated purpose and intent. She was a marvel. She was terrifying.

When I moved a little closer the spider suddenly stopped what she was doing, as if she’d become aware she was being watched. She remained briefly motionless, seeming to assess the situation, then scuttled into a safer niche in the uppermost corner of the balcony, where she curled up into a tiny fist and went still.

I observed her for a while longer, my feelings shifting from admiration and amazement to disgust and fear and back again. At last a clear victor emerged, and I went inside the apartment to find the spray can of insecticide.


Brotherhood

The famous Zimbabwean lion Cecil, named for British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, had a younger brother with whom he roamed Hwange National Park. When the brothers entered the territory of a neighboring pride, known as the Askari, Cecil’s brother was killed in the ensuing battle, as was the leader of the Askari, Mpofu. Mpofu’s three sons took leadership of the pride, and Cecil, seriously wounded in the struggle, was driven away. For a time he established his own pride near the eastern border of the park, but was eventually challenged and defeated by two younger males and forced to move on.

It has been suggested that along with his majestic black-rimmed mane, what made Cecil so popular with visitors to the park was his apparent ease in the presence of humans. He would allow vehicles to get much closer to him than other lions normally did, giving tourists and wildlife photographers unparalleled views of this most sought-after of African animals.

After two of Mpofu’s sons were shot and killed by trophy hunters, the remaining son, Jericho, was no longer able to defend the Askari pride against challengers. Quickly ousted by a new group of interloping males, Jericho took to roaming the park in search of another pride to join or take as his own. His efforts were in vain, however, and he remained a solitary wanderer until one day, as fate would have it, he ran into his old enemy, Cecil.

The claws came out, and a fight to the death appeared certain to those who were watching (through powerful binoculars, from a safe distance). But after the first few blows were exchanged the hostilities abruptly ceased. Cecil and Jericho reclined in the grass near one another, like a pair of regally indifferent sphinxes, without further incident. Not long afterward they were observed traveling together, and in time it was clear they had become inseparable companions, so much so that park wardens began referring to Jericho as Cecil’s brother. Working as a team the two lions eventually established themselves as rulers of their own pride, and were successful in impregnating females and passing on their genetic material.

The nineteenth-century British naturalist and mystic Joseph Whitecroft once wrote, “To every living thing you see, say we.” His journals express wonder, and even a kind of spiritual dread, at what appears merely obvious: how every creature that is alive in the world at one time is alive now, and it is the same now.

Cecil was lured out of the park and killed by a trophy-hunting dentist from Minnesota at the advanced age, for a lion, of thirteen. There have been conflicting reports as to whether Jericho is still alive. Their story has not yet been turned into a generation-spanning novel of family, love, war, and death.


Interpretation

On New Year’s Eve, in small towns throughout Kentucky and Louisiana, people celebrated as they always did by setting off fireworks. The eruption of noise and light startled flocks of blackbirds, which rose up into the tumult and quickly became disoriented. While the people celebrated below, the birds, mostly unseen in the darkness, flew into electrical wires, water towers, and the sides of buildings, while others turned on one another in the frenzy, or were attacked by other, larger birds of prey. The fireworks went on longer than usual this year, as a need was felt for a more than usually grand spectacle of patriotism, and so the panic did not dissipate quickly but spread to other flocks up and down the countryside.

The next morning hundreds of birds were found dead in the meadows and on the highways and streets. Still more continued to fall lifeless from the skies that day in exhaustion. People in the area, not knowing the cause, were baffled and disturbed. Many were convinced it was an omen or at least a sign, though of what exactly, none could agree.

 

Thomas Wharton’s first novel, Icefields, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, Canada/Caribbean division. His second novel, Salamander, was short-listed for the Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His work has been published in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and elsewhere. (6/2016)


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