Radio Times/1924/01/04/Animals in Disguise
Animals in Disguise.
How Nature Protects Her Charges.
A Talk from London, by E. Kay Robinson.
I hope to show you how some of our familiar British animals tell the same great story as the wild beasts of other lands; and even our commonest things become interesting when you see how they illustrate some of Nature's most wonderful work.
To begin with, look at our largest wild land animal, the red deer. Of course, he is not really red, but a bright khaki. Now, why should he and the hare he the only British animals that wear khaki, like the lions and antelopes of Africa? It is because he and the hare are the only once which always live and fight for their lives not in the open, as the lions and antelopes do.
And in his changing colouring at different periods of his life the red deer repeats as large a chapter of the ancient history of our own country as the lion does of Africa.
The Lion's Camouflage.
The spotted fur of young lion cube shows that ages and ages ago all lions were spotted, and this was because they hunted then in the vast primeval forests of Africa, where the sunlight., sprinkled through foliage overhead, dappled everything with light and dark spots, and made a spotted hide the only effective camouflage both for hunters and hunted. But when, with gradual change of climate, African forest gave way to desert and sunburnt plain, the lion had to give up hunting spotted woodland doer, and took to the open, where herds of khaki-coloured antelopes were multiplying, and for this life he had to wear khaki too; but his spotted cubs still tell us that ages ago he was a spotted beast of the woods.
So, when we now see that all red-deer fawns are conspicuously spotted all over with white, we know that a similar change must have occurred in Britain, and the gradual disappearance of primeval forest must have compelled our one-time spotted woodland deer to put on the khaki uniform of the open. The red-deer fawns, however, are still spotted, like the lion cubs, because at infancy they have to be left while their parent seeks food, hidden among undergrowth whose dappled shade still suits their spotted colouring.
Hidden by Stripes.
Thus the red deer tells on the same secrets of Nature that we learn from the lions and leopards of other lands; but where in Britain shall we find an explanation of the stripes which the roaming tiger and zebra wear to secure invisibility of movement at dusk, so that a herd of zebra passing on the veldt looks only like a mist?
We have no British animal completely striped; but in the face of the badger, with its distinct black and white stripes, we see the same clever device of Nature strikingly displayed. For the moment of peril in the wild badger's daily life comes at dusk in the evening, when he put his head out of his burrow to reconnoitre before venturing forth upon his nightly prowl. He does not know what enemy may he waiting outside with watchful eyes which would instantly notice the movement of his head, if it were all of one colour. But the badger, with his face boldly camouflaged in stripes, can turn his head this way and that without detection before venturing forth.
Thus, even the striped tiger has his parallel in British wild life, in which, indeed, very few, if any, of Nature's clever devices of evolution are unrepresented. Look at the red deer again and see how its bounding gait when disturbed, its slender limbs and dainty, pointed hoofs contrast with the badger's flat feet, short legs, and shambling gait.
Except the reindeer and a few relatives, who are equipped with large splay-feet for slipshod travelling over wastes of snow or marsh, all kinds of deer have tapering limbs and neat feet, because they are all denizens of woodland, or of places covered with scrubby vegetation. Here flat feet or splay-feet would be entangled at every step.
Fur Made for Burrowing.
Very different is the difficulty which Nature has had to surmount in the case of the badger. It never needs to traverse the landscape at speed. Its skulking, evasive habits when abroad are its safeguard; but at home, it must be prepared to disappear at any moment down its burrow without delaying to turn round in the narrow passage, and with its flat feet and short legs it can move as quickly backwards as forwards in the burrow.
If you had never seen nor heard of a badger, but were shown a piece of its skin with the hair on you should be able to tell that it is an animal which lives in a burrow and can run backwards and forwards in it.
It does not matter which way you stroke the badger or those other underground dwellers, the mole and the rabbit. Their fur has no "set" in any direction, because they all need to be able to run either backwards or forwards, through narrow passages; and for the same reason their fur has no particular colour.
Natures Wonderful Care.
From all this it might seem that the funny old badger is in a sort of way Nature's favourite, considering what great pains have been taken to help him in his queer ways of life; but there is no wild British creature which you can intelligently examine without discovering equally remarkable evidence of Nature's care in its evolution.
How did the stag acquire his huge, branching antlers? Why must he drop them each spring and renew them each summer? Why do they grow in velvet? Why have they such a remarkable shape? Why has the stag no loud a bellow? Why, when stags are fighting, do they emit so strong a smell of musk that it is quite unpleasant to be near them?
I have not time to answer all these questions; but I will take the last. Why do stags when fighting emit a strong smell of musk? All carnivorous animals detest the smell of musk and whenever Nature gives to any creature a protective scent, it is always a strong, musky smell for use when necessary.
Fighting for Wins.
So lions and leopards and wolves are careful not to go near fighting stags; and the reason why Nature has given to stags this strong scent for use only when fighting is because for one fort-night in every year each stag is so absorbed in fighting for wives with other stags that, if he were not specially protected just then, he could easily be stalked and killed by any beast of prey; and the race would he exterminated. But, while fighting, the stags are doing Nature's work for the evolution of the race, no Nature protects them until the work is finished.
The answers to all the other questions are equally simple, and each links up the red deer to some principle of evolution which explains many other questions about other creatures; and by studying these, you learn to understand all Nature, including your own.