Friday, May 10, 2013

The Value of Unexpected Creatures


Recently I did a snake workshop for people who knew little about snakes, but were otherwise very well educated in various fields of endeavor (law, medicine, psychology). While discussing gliding snakes, one participant commented to the effect that we now have to worry about flying snakes. The comment was a reminder that the general public, even the well educated general public, lacks an appreciation for biodiversity.

[To the right: Wallace painted this watercolor of Rhacophorus 
nigropalmatus in 1855. At the time this was an undescribed species. Wallace wrote on the back of the watercolor the frog “descended from a high tree as if flying.” © ALFRED RUSSEL
WALLACE MEMORIAL FUND]

Appreciation for biodiversity is a core attitude for halting or at least slowing the current extinction event that we are experiencing. A society that understands ecology, evolution and biodiversity - natural history - is less inclined to be deluded by the idea that humans are in charge of the planet, and can act independently from nature and the ecosystem.

Unexpected creature can form the basis for the teachable moment. The moment that a person realizes there is more to the world that the societal myths that keep the masses occupied.  Yandell (2013) commented on the recent discovery of Alfred Russel Wallace's watercolor of the giant flying frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus). Wallace did the painting in 1855 shortly after a local Malaysian collected the frog and presented it to Wallace. The watercolor was used to produce the woodcut print in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago.

Flying frogs and snakes are out of the ordinary, gliding and parachuting behavior is not something expected of amphibians and reptiles. Venomous squamates are also high interest herps that can attract the attention of the modern technological zombie. But there are many other unexpected species that can spark interest in the natural world. The giant Chinese salamander, Andrias davidianus, a completely aquatic, giant amphibian that reaches 1.8 meters in length. The tentacled snake, Erpeton tentaculatus, with a pair of rostral appendages making it the most distinctive serpent on the planet And, the mata mata turtle, Chelus fimbriatus, a bizarre highly aquatic turtle that creates a  vacuum to capture prey.

Whatever your favorite unexpected creature happens to be consider using it to introduce someone else to the world they live in.

Citation
Yandell, K. 2013. Flying Frog, 1855. The Scientist.

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