My brother was in Florida on a quick a/c job – go in, clean the units, go out, 25 bucks per. He took it basically for the trip, and enjoyed himself the way my brother enjoys himself – taking photos of everything. Well, that and the occasional bar with his ever bar-trending partner on the job. Anyway, he told me, he went to an alligator “preserve” somewhere south of Jacksonville, paid his 5 bucks at the gate, and found a rather fetid place, the air alive with the odor of alligator shit, and to entertain the kiddies a man giving lectures on the savage alligator while bugging some poor chosen specimen. The man got the gator to yawn, fed the creature, scared some kids, and my bro, getting bored with an operation that was, basically, throw a fence around a wallow and charge people to enter, left.
The best thing in today’s Times is Natalie Angier’s article about the whole family of crocodilia.
Angier is a cute writer. Cute journalism is usually lousy writing, and Angier has her detractors from the science side – among them, the redoubtable Helen Cronin -- but I like reading her.
“To the casual observer, an adult alligator afloat in an algae-dappled pond, its six-foot body motionless save for the sporadic darting of its devilish amber eyes, might conjure up any number of images, none of them fuzzy-wuzzy. A souvenir dinosaur. A log with teeth. A handbag waiting to happen.”
The handbag, of course, is a stand-up set-up, three beats. I’m rather partial to three beat material myself. The more important things in the article are:
a. the discovery that the Alligator possesses a sort of proprioceptive sense: “ … the mysterious little bumps found around the jaws of some crocodile species and across the entire bodies of others, which naturalists had long observed but never before understood, are sensory organs exquisitely suited to the demands of a semisubmerged ambush predator.
The pigmented nodules encase bundles of nerve fibers that respond to the slightest disturbance in surface water and thus allow a crocodile to detect the signature of a potential meal - an approaching fish, a bathing heron, a luckless fawn enjoying its last lick of water.”
b. the discovery that Nile crocs are actually two species;
and c., the construction of a family tree including crocs and birds that is part of the continuing revolution in classification effected by cladistics and chromosomal research.
“Crocodiles also hark back to another cast of beloved goliaths, the real ones called dinosaurs. The resemblance is not circumstantial. Through recent taxonomic analysis, scientists have concluded that dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds should be classified together on one branch of the great polylimbed Sequoia of Life.
"Crocodiles really are the closest things we have to living dinosaurs," said Dr. Thorbjarnarson. They are also much more like birds than they are like snakes, iguanas or other reptiles. For example, whereas most snakes and lizards have hearts with only three chambers, and a consequent mixing of oxygen-rich and oxygen-depleted blood supplies, crocodiles and birds have a similarly elaborate cardiac layout, in which four chambers and valves keep oxygenated and unoxygenated blood flows separate. (Mammals independently evolved a four-chambered heart.) That capacity lends the animals significant metabolic flexibility and improves the performance of their brains.”