Monday, June 23, 2008

Who Killed the Dodo?!

In the unimaginably dark and distant past, ancient fish crawled out of the oceans on their fins, gasping for breath, often getting stuck in slosh and being washed back into the oceans by the tides. The searing heat of the still young sun penetrating through a toxic, light atmosphere would desiccate their eyes and soak up their lives. Countless fish lay dead on the sea shore with that open-mouthed dead look that somehow only fish can manage. Yet they persevered, they never gave up...with their flimsy fins and fragile semi-formed vertebrae, they dragged their bodies across the sea shore. It took hundreds of thousands of years of painstaking effort, groveling on their sides, lugging themselves forward with their weak, undeveloped fins. Filling their embryonic semi-formed lungs with short gasps of noxious air and choking helplessly, sucking fluids from ancient pinecones using their toothless mouths, their desperate bodies lunging and writhing in the cancerous heat of an alien environment, rubbing against the sand to shed scales. These were our ancient fore-fathers, creatures we owe our existence to. But for the courage and determination shown by these daring primordial beings, life would have been much different. And you'd think they'd be remembered more often...

Anyway, fish eventually became reptiles, some of which became lizards and later, birds.

After this relatively humble beginning, Life gained momentum. Newer and bolder skeletal structures emerged, some terrifying and some downright comical. There was a brief time when large lizards were fashionable, but for some reason, it didn’t stick. When the ground became clear of these huge reptiles, the apes slowly began to wonder whether it would be a good idea to venture down. Gradually as they gained courage, they sent the first ape down, to experiment. Unfortunately as it was closing time, it failed to notice its tail and tripped and landed on its head with much force, causing considerable damage. It later went on to breed and populate Australia. However the other apes descended without incident and in what is widely regarded as a bad move, quickly got rid of their tails and became Man, and would later chase down and trap the other apes who didn't descend from the trees and teach them how to juggle eleven burning chainsaws while balancing three Campari bottles on the nose and walking on a tightrope over a deep ravine with hungry crocodiles, while giving a discourse about the history of Palestine in Japanese. They would also go on to be the first species to try and kill other members of the same species for no good reason.

Somewhere along the line, Tigers made a brief cameo appearance too. With their feline charms and swashbuckling stripes they streaked through history like a comet, radiating raw sexual energy, making old girls happy and young girls even happier. They were the original Casanovas. They bred profusely and unashamedly, their desire for Food, Sex and The Good Life overcoming all objections of modesty and virtue. Their numbers were growing at an alarming rate, when some idiot had to discover cordite and ruin it for them. They had a good thing going though, before it was an abrupt Game-Over. They are still remembered in bed these days. (In bedtime stories, obviously!)

Given how surprisingly fair and unbiased a process evolution is, some occurrences are simply astonishing.

The extinction of the Dodo, for one. They were massive birds with incredibly strong pectoral muscles. They descended from the great flighted dinosaurs. They could kill their prey by thrashing it with their wings alone. For hundreds of thousands of years, they inhabited the wild islands off the African coast, and were the unchallenged masters of the ecosystem. They were at the apex of the food chain. They were on a roll, they were at the top of their game.

The Gouldian Finch on the other hand is one of world's most delicate and fragile birds. It requires of all things, fire for its food. It feeds mainly on the seeds of one plant - speargrass. It is only after forest fires - started by accident or by man - have cleared the undergrowth that the birds can reach the seeds on the ground. With a handicap like that, you'd think the first Gouldian Finch would have been lucky to see off a few seasons, but No. That bird has survived 60 million years.

The emperor penguin lives and breeds in temperatures less than -45C. The Ivory Gull breeds further north than any other bird, and it perfectly adapted to the conditions which defeat most other life forms. The Bar-headed goose lives on the Tibetian plateau, on the coldest desert on the roof of the world. The Oilbird lives in the pitch blackness of Venezuelan caves. The Rufous Hummingbird survives and breeds at altitudes of 9000ft and at temperatures well below freezing by making a nest of the highest insulate qualities, a network of lichen and spiders web.

Or you'd think the case of the Bermuda Petrel would be a sure bet. It lives in burrows on the side of cliffs just above the sea-line. Minuscule amounts of Chlorofluorocarbons spewed into the atmosphere, a tiny hole in the ozone layer, a wee bit of global warming followed by a small increase in sea levels, and there you are. The Bermuda Petrel, gone. History. Bummer. Sitting Duck. No-brainer. Checkmated by the giant evolution machinery!

And of all these, guess who had to go? The mighty Dodo! And why, after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, after having survived the long and cold ice age? Because a bunch of hungry Dutchmen arrived in Africa.

The Dinosaurs.
Earth trembled when they walked. They impacted biological history like nothing before or after them, they roamed around with such an other-worldly eminence that in the 200-odd million years that they lasted, they reigned with unchallenged supremacy. Their dominance over other life forms was total, their might unparallelled. They were evolution's greatest triumph, a showcase of extreme biological adaptation. It took a shower of heavenly bodies to put them to rest and end their era. Their total dominance of the food chain would be unmatched in degree and extent till 65 million years after they were annihilated. Their influence was so great, so profound that many species spun off their biologcal pedigree - Birds, crocodiles, lizards, Komobo dragons, even turtles inhabit the earth to this day. Why did they have to go?

The Cockroach
It is the unassuming insect that defeated the mighty Dinosaur in the evolution race, and is all poised to outlast Man, too. Its epidermis is stronger than an elephant's, it is resistant to bacterial infection, its hard, strong exoskeleton can withstand G-forces at which human beings would pass out, they have an incredibly co-ordinated group emergency behaviour, they are cold blooded and are resistant to cell division under nuclear radiation, they don't mutate, they can feed on practically anything. They have been around for 240 million years, they have survived meteor showers, the ice age, the bronze age, and the Liberace age. They are currently doing a very good job of survival in the tele-shopping age. So they can no doubt survive nuclear attacks. The next time you see a cockroach running around, remember that in the long evolutionary race, it will outrun you. After the brief moment of reflection, give it a mighty whack on the head.

Take the case of the Penguin. Here is another evolutionary anomaly. Here is evidence that someone somewhere has seriously messed up. When this kind of mistake shows up, it means someone screwed up seriously at a very early stage, and the anomaly is the symptom merely, of a more deep rooted cause.


How can you explain that appearance? What excuse does evolution have to produce something like that and still be in business? Whatever its ancestor was, just what was it thinking as it began evolving? What strategic roadmap and goals did it lay before itself as it started rolling or stretching or listening to rap music or doing whatever it is that one does to initiate evolution? To what end has a concatenation of geographic, climactic and chemical changes resulted in such a hideous life form? Since everything in the known universe is known to have been caused by something and in turn cause something else, what painstakingly calculated scheme does nature intend for this...thing to play a pivotal role in? What exactly is that Penguin-shaped hole in the expanse of the grand evolutionary blueprint that this creature is supposed to plug? What appalling life form is this bird supposed to give rise to? What can be more unsightly than this? How can Mother Nature create such a being and still keep a straight face?

And finally, here is a drastically simplified evolution chart.


If those primitive invertebrates knew that their revolutionary, world changing act of leaving the oceans and settling down on land would eventually, after countless millions of years result in that thing on the right, I wonder whether they would have bothered at all.

(I had to plug in the tiger was a contractual obligation)