Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Astonishing Animals

Unemployment is a funny thing. Wait, no it’s not. It’s a hellish time of torment and boredom and self-loathing. However, when one is unemployed for any period of time, it seems as if the brain is irresistibly attracted to finding tasks to keep you occupied. My current time-wasting crusade is to solve the puzzle of Astonishing Animals, a book by Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten from 2004. The book is an enormous catalogue of 97 obscure and wonderful animals all gorgeously illustrated by Schouten with brief (and often bemusing) descriptions by Flannery.

The catch is that one of the animals described in the book is in fact fictional; invented by the authors as a puzzle for the reader to solve. Easy enough, until you realise how unbelievably strange the majority of animals on earth really are. Take the platypus. Although familiar to us all today, the platypus was dismissed as an obvious fake by the most learned men in Europe when the first specimens were shipped over from the colonies. Early scientists who saw the animal as a living creature refused to believe aborigines who told them that it laid eggs. Evolutionary adaptation is far stranger than fiction.

After browsing past a few of the more bizarre specimens it became clear that the fake had to be really, implausibly strange. I thought I had it with the Asian giant softshell tortoise: a giant, flat testudine the size of a tractor tire with a soft leathery shell, a snout like a pig and a head and neck reminiscent of a flaccid penis. But no, the thing really exists – not only that but it apparently feeds on the occasional human corpses that ends up in the Ganges.

What about the Stoplight loosejaw? The illustration depicts a fish whose jaw is entirely detached from it’s head. The jaw is held away from the body with three bony struts – there is no connection between the jaws and the throat. I was almost certain this would have to be the one, it seemed physically preposterous for such a creature to exist. But, of course, it does. Anyway, the deep-sea hides a myriad of weird fishes, it would be almost too easy to bury the fictitious animal in this section, surely the authors have more cunning that that?

Still more of these zoological freaks presented themselves to me: a beaked whale with tusks that grow upwards at an angle from the lower jaw that effectively clamps the jaw shut? Real. An obscure representative of the kangaroo family that lives on a single tropical island which never lets the full-length of its tail touch the ground? Legit. A bird species whose males have two feathers positioned above it’s eyes that are over twice its body-length which it can hold out at a right angle to attract females? It’s bona fide.

After a back-breaking Wikipedia/Google session I finally worked it out. If anything it was a little disappointing, the authors had hidden it amongst the deep-sea fishes and it was one of the more plausible looking creatures on show. Ready for the spoiler? It is the Crested basketfish – Sagenapinna obriensis. The creature is depicted as a thin, fairly elongate fish with a prominent crest running along the body, but most noticeable are a series of ray-like fins projecting forward from behind the head. We are told that the animal uses these specialized fins as a sort of fishing net to catch its prey. Many other real deep-sea fishes use similar fishing accoutrements – the angler fishes immediately spring to mind – but apparently evolution has yet to create a fish with its own net. It’s genus name means roughly ‘drag-net of feathers’ which is mundane enough, but why ‘obriensis’ I wonder? An elaborate crypto-marketing ploy for Windscreens O’Brien? (No, that’s fairly unlikely). It’s truly a mystery for the ages.