Against the Grain

Without non-conformists no advance

A non-conformist is someone who does not does not behave or live a life expected of that individual. A fish, for example, is supposed to swim, yet the Flying Fish leaps out of the water and may glide for a hundred metres or so on its stiff and outstretched pectoral and pelvic fins before plunging back into its element. Another non-conformist is the tree kangaroo. Kangaroos are supposed to take giant bonds and jump across the flat countryside of the Australian interior, but instead the leaf-eating tree kangaroo species of Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea climb into the foliage of huge tress like clumsy monkeys.

Non-conformists of a different kind are certain food specialists: the panda is a plant-eating carnivore, in other words a “vegetarian bear”, and the fish-eating bats of South America which confound the image of the typical insect chasing or fruit-eating chiropterans, pick up small fish from just below the surface of the water. Physiological non-conformists must include the freshwater sharks of Lake Managua (Nicaragua), the only sharks that do not live in the sea, and the Lake Titicaca frogs that live in depths exceeding 200 m without ever having to come to the surface to breathe. Tuna, despite being fish and thus by definition ‘cold-blooded’, actually have blood temperatures which may be 20°C or more higher than the ambient temperature around them. The same, incidentally, holds true for bumble bees.

And then there are the behavioural non-conformists like the ‘Flying Snake’ of South East Asia or the little frog Staurois parvus of Borneo that does not croak to attract the attention of its female, but stretches its legs to provide a visual signal. Non-conformists are also some daytime-active fireflies, which unlike closely related species do not use light signals. Staying with invertebrates I need to mention the ‘bolas spider’, a species that does not spin a web or pounce upon its victim like other spiders, but that uses a small pheromone-emitting blob suspended from a single sticky silk thread, which it swings around to attract male moths that make the fatal mistake of mistaking the blob for one of its females because of its scent.

One of my favourite non-conformist insects are the Hawaiian fly-catching caterpillars of the geometrid moth genus Eupithecia. These non-conformists do not feed on plants, but are carnivorous. Hawaii has more species of Drosophila fruit flies than any other region of the world and a Eupithecia caterpillar will react to an accidental touch of its body by a fruit fly with a rapid swing of its anterior end, allowing its three pairs of enlarged raptorial front legs to grab the fly and hand it to the caterpillars mouth. Feeding on flies may have evolved from originally feeding on protein-rich pollen, a scenario that had also been assumed to be behind the world’s only non-carnivorous, pollen-feeding spider Bagheera kiplingi.

Actually, the animal world isn’t the only one that abounds with non-conformists, for there are also species of plants that do not conform: Welwitschia mirabilis with a lifespan of over a hundred years, but only a single pair of leaves is one, the succulent pebble-resembling Lithops plants of the Namibian desert or rootless plants of the genus Tillandsia that grow on telegraph wires are another. Although non-conformists make it difficult for biologist to come up with generalities, it does make the study of the variety and amazing adaptability of life so much more interesting: “Vive la différence” in more than one sense!

Dr Meyer Rochow bio essay : "When the topic is thirst, a sailor wisdom is definitely on target"

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© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2016.
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