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More Things in Heaven and Earth

August 19, 2013

I grew up in Vernon Township, New Jersey, the largest town in the state’s most rural county.  Everything from the ski resort to the local diner is built into the forests on the outskirts of the Appalachians.  When you live that close to nature, it’s no surprise when you run into wildlife.  Squirrels, snakes, deer: I might run into all of them on a forty minute walk through my neighborhood.

The biggest beast of them all, though, is Ursus americanus, the American black bear.  Bears are just a part of life here.  When a bear wanders through the suburbs, the TV stations send out helicopters and news crews.  When one wanders around here, it’s called Tuesday.  Earlier this summer we had five of them in our backyard in the span of a week.  With all that exposure, it’s easy to forget the awe and terror that a bear can inspire.

I had figured that all that contact with nature would kind of numb me to it.  You know, when you’ve found yourself directly beneath a bear climbing up a tree, you might think you’ve seen it all.  But, evidently, this isn’t true.  Last week, when the Smithsonian announced the discovery of a new species within the raccoon family, I found myself captivated the news.

Here is Kristofer Helgen, a zoologist at the National Museum of Natural History, describing the discovery of the olinguito on PBS Newshour:

If you don’t have time to watch the interview, here’s the quote that got me:

The group of animals the olinguito is part of are what we call the mammalian carnivores … These animals are beloved by the public and they’re intensely studied by zoologists.  And, because of that, the classification of these animals tends to be well-established.  Most of these we’ve known for hundreds of years … So, this part of the animal family tree is maybe the last place where you’d expect an animal like the olinguito to be hiding.

That they were able to find a new species in a family as well researched as the raccoon’s says a lot about how little we ultimately know about the world.  If there is still so much to be learned about the most common of animals, then what secrets are lurking far from human sight?

On August 15, the same day the olinguito discovery was announced, Long Island’s PBS affiliate WLIW aired an episode of Nova entitled “Kings of Camouflage”.  The title kings of camouflage are cuttlefish, an order of mollusks similar to octopuses and squid.  I had never heard of cuttlefish before, but I was in the mood to learn more about the animal kingdom, so I tuned in.

Watching these creatures blew my mind.  Their camouflage abilities are spectacular, as their electric skin is able to match the detailed patterns of underwater life.  Lab experiments have shown them capable of relatively complex learning for a mollusk.  And then there’s mating season, in which some smaller males will “cross-dress” to evade their bigger challengers in the quest for a mate.

I was sad to see the hour end, as I could have watched cuttlefish footage all night long.  I’ll likely never get close to a cuttlefish or an olinguito or whatever new wildlife we find next.  But what I can do is better appreciate the world around me.  I’m beginning to understand that even when you’ve think you’ve seen it all, you’ve just barely started looking.


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