Lost Without A Galaxy


I found this article in the science section — any science section; I can’t imagine editors turning this one down — about how research has shown that dung beetles can use the Milky Way to navigate. I have to applaud the effort there. That’s more than I ever do with the Milky Way. If you left it to me I’d probably let the whole galaxy clutter up the scary drawer above all the pots and pans, and maybe take it out just enough to feel guilty about how I should be using it more. Navigating would never cross my mind, much less helping dung beetles navigate, so it’s good the beetles seem to have worked that out on their own.

The dung beetle navigation thing finally makes sense of a lot history, which is better than most history does for itself. You always imagined that people looked at Christopher Columbus funny for his refusal to adjust the heading until he’d had a flock of dung beetles on deck during a cloudless, moonless night, but he did all right for himself, and left his beetles in charge of Hispaniola while he was busy getting tried for treason.

But as ever we shouldn’t have been surprised. Folklore’s talked about how animals have astounding abilities for thousands of years now, although folklore also talks about how witches are baking little children and how it’s good luck for the Red-Leafed Arrogating Murderberry Vine to crack your house’s foundation and how this snowstorm is the very first time the university ever cancelled class for anything less than the death of a President, so maybe the trouble is folklore needs to be more selective about what it says. We can’t go listening to everything. There’s too much of it.

Still, good on scientists for working this out, so now we have one less mystery of dung beetle navigation to worry about. And the remarkable abilities of animals are worth exploring, while we still have any animals left, since we never know when they’re going to turn out useful. The whole history of hydrodynamical engineering would have been different and much less colorful if we hadn’t discovered the natural ability that dik-diks have for building coffer dams. Nobody who obtains a degree in electrical engineering would try to argue against the natural skills which snowy egrets have in the field, either.

Why, the electrical engineering itself would barely exist if an egret hadn’t popped into the home of Professor Joseph Henry one day in 1841 and said, “Hey, why don’t you try building that electromagnet using electricity instead of terrified mice for a change?” Henry knew good advice when he had it shrieked into his ear and before you knew it, he was the head of the Smithsonian Institution and lauded worldwide for easing tension level among mice.

And the printing industry is still shaken by the pioneering work done for them by binturongs, starting with their classic text, No, We Did Not Make Ourselves Up and carrying on to lesser but still important works like Honest, Binturongs Do So Exist and the beloved Here Are Some Other Totally For Real Animals Besides Binturongs. They also independently invented the Linotype machine, although their version is rarely used for typesetting as they only submitted it for patent protection in 1998. Also it’s steam-powered, so they would owe royalties to both Latvia and xenopus frogs.

Still, reading about how dung beetles can navigate so has left me feeling vaguely inferior to them. I was happy deferring to their mastery in dung-related enterprises; I recognize a master’s touch when I cringe away from it and curl up in the corner. It’s finding that they’re good at something else which has got me sulking. I’d taken navigation as one of my points of superiority to the dung beetle. Not in excess, of course, and I admit there have been times I navigated particularly poorly, like that weekend I just headed out into the roads of Ocean County and washed ashore on Cape Verde.

At least I’m still superior, except to the brush-tailed bettong, in my ability to read about other animals in the science section.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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