Nature’s Wildest Weapons: Horns, Tusks and Antlers review – the terrifying world of animal arms races

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love an enthusiast, and an expert. Professor Doug Emlen is both. You can see it when he holds a huge elk antler, turning it and looking at it admiringly, the way a firearms enthusiast would look at a big gun. Well, an antler is a weapon, weapons are Prof Doug’s things, this is Nature’s Wildest Weapons: Horns, Tusks and Antlers (BBC2).

Emlen likes chameleons, too, because they are the quintessential ambush predator: they sit tight, camouflaged, their eyes can swivel in different directions, and they thwap out their tongues to ambush their prey. But there are varieties of chameleons Doug gets especially excited about: the ones with horns. “These guys look like little dinosaurs,” he says, gleefully. “Think of this like Jurassic Park jousting as these males try and push and pry and twist each other off the branch.”

But Emlen is not just a TV person getting the horn about macho predators, and nature’s epic battles. As a biologist, he has spent years studying the species whose weapons are taken to extremes, piecing together the evidence to explain their evolution. And he has found that, for an arms race to happen, certain conditions need to be in place. By watching male Chilean beetles (very big jaws, very macho) knock each other off trees so they can stay at the sap and get female beetles (small jaws, prettier), Doug concludes that there needs to be a defendable resource (sap = sex) against which fights can take place.

Elephants next. Females are fertile for only about five days every four years. So competition for them is intense – that’s condition number two for an arms race, and why male elephants have very big tusks.

And for the final evolutionary pressure, it’s back to beetles, dung ones this time. Doug finds that they – and all other creatures with extreme weapons – do battle one-on-one. “It’s no accident that for 5,000 years of recorded human history the only sort of fight that has ever mattered for honour or status is the duel.”

 There’s another species that has developed extreme weapons: us. And it was hard not to think of the cold war, and what’s going on now, the moment this began. Does ideology count as a defendable resource I wonder? That elk might as well have been called Kim Jong-un. The only way it can develop its big weapons is to shunt reserves (of calcium) away from the rest of its body, pulling important reserves to allocate to the weapons, so that it is sick, dying even. Antlers, missiles; calcium, money; body, population – what’s the difference? Oh, Kim’s Antlers don’t even work, snapped on impact.

Emlen explores the parallels between animals arms races and our own further; he visits Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, which is equipped with Minuteman III nuclear missiles. They are the big ones, the most destructive weapons on earth, though Ross, the corporal showing him round, can’t go into detail. “We will launch the missiles but the person who has the authority is the president,” says Corporal Ross in a missile launch training facility. Yeah, thanks for the reminder. A giant golden-haired rogue male dung beetle, with tiny minute man hands but massivenuclear horns, 150 of them just here.

So in nature, the really big weapons – like the giant claw of the fiddler crab – are rarely deployed, they are just a deterrent? Hmmm, not sure that’s reassuring, when this particular fiddler crab, the Mar-a-Lago variety, shows few signs of following predictable patterns of evolutionary science. Yeah, I know he was a dung beetle, he morphed into a fiddler crab, all right? Watch out for that claw, ladies. Ouch.

It’s fascinating, and terrifying, with a few jolly subplots and anomalies along the way. Like the Jesus Christ birds for whom it’s the females who are the aggressors and hold the weapons. And the sneaky weaponless male dung beetles who dig secret love tunnels to mate with the big guys’ females.

Donald Jr and Eric gets parts in the story, too. Weapon sizes in some animal populations – including elephants, big horn sheep and caribous – are decreasing. And the trigger for this change? Trophy hunters, who, in prizing the biggest horns, tusks and antlers are actually inadvertently removing the genes for the biggest weapons. Quite ironic really.

But I’m afraid it’s only a small part of the story. The big one is still that the males with the biggest and most extreme weapons are the most successful. Daddy still wins.

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