Monday, January 21, 2008

Evolutionary Lessons

You would think, that after all these years and the tons of sunflower seeds that we have fed them, the squirrels wouldn't jump down from the bird feeders in panic every single time that we step out of our house. But they do.

Sometimes there is just one, either draped lengthwise alongside the soda bottle feeder or dangling by its hind feet trapeze-artist-like from the perch at the bottom. Other times it is the whole scurry of them - seven at the moment. And yes, scurry is the proper collective noun or ("noun of assemblage") for these agile tree-dwelling rodents of the Family Sciuridae, possibly because the creator of nouns of assemblage (or whoever) observed that this is what they did whenever he walked out his own front portal.

A group of squirrels is also known as a "dray" which has a primary definition of "a truck or cart for delivering beer barrels or other heavy loads, esp. a low one without sides". I have no idea how that term came to be applied to bushy-tailed tree rats unless the Chief Noun-namer was put in mind of the word when he saw how one of the arboreal animal's abdominal six-pack expanded into a beer belly after one of its high-speed power lunches.

In any event the sound of a door opening at our house is immediately followed by the "thwap" (or "thwap", "thwap", "thwap", "thwap", "thwap", "thwap", "thwap") of plummeting pip predators and the imagined sound of scampering paws rapidly rushing across the lawn. I guess that the evolutionary lesson here is that suspicious species survive.

But I am certain there is more to it than just that. For example I have never seen any injuries resulting from the squirrels' athletic antics. Now as followers of the UConn women's basketball team Mars and I have become accustomed over the years to seeing physically fit young women (Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Shea Ralph, Nicole Wolfe, Kalana Greene, and now Mel Thomas) fall down and be carried from the court, only to re-appear at the next game on crutches with their surgically repaired anterior cruciate ligament heavily bandaged. And they jump only a few inches into the air.

Squirrels on the other hand drop straight down from heights of six feet or more under circumstances that would lead you to believe that their mind hasn't had nearly enough time to properly prepare their body for the traumatic touchdown it is about to endure. Although like the mythical cat, squirrels always seem to land on their feet - or at least in a paws-down position - I am nonetheless amazed to have never, ever seen one of them emerge from their unplanned rapid descent with even the slightest trace of a limp, or with any other indication whatsoever that their dismount did not go completely according to plan.

Perhaps it is just the squirrel's version of "never let them see you sweat!" - a total unwillingness to show any sign of weakness - to anyone - no matter what. Maybe that is what gets passed down from generation to generation of squirrels, rather than a gradual buildup of trust for us folks that, for years, have provided them with food and shelter.

Or maybe it just doesn't hurt them. Is it possible that the squirrels have hardwired into their DNA the secret to falling from great heights without injuring themselves?

The Hartford Courant reported that "[recent] research has shown neuromuscular imbalances in female athletes contribute to many knee problems. The first is what [the researcher] calls ligament dominance. When a player lands from a rebound, the impact goes to the ligament instead of being dissipated by muscles."

So listen up Coach Geno and learn from the squirrels - apparently "White (and black) girls can't jump" - but bushy tailed gray rats can!"

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