Not an Iguana: Photo by Hugo Fernandes-Ferreira.
The following animals were brought to the elementary school assembly on Monday: one anteater, one porcupine, one myna bird, and one iguana. My kids are often indifferent to school, because they’re little boys and school is the most boring thing in the world for little boys. But this was an event featuring exotic wildlife, and both kids were still talking about the South America critters at dinner that night.
The particular lizard they saw, for example, feeds its own poop to its babies. Well how about that, an animal specifically created to make children laugh. Here’s the story as I heard it: Whatever type of lizard it is, the first of these live specimens studied by our human scientists displayed some weird parent-to-infant feeding behavior: The mother poops and the babies eat it. And when the juveniles were taken away for solitary studies and provided with their presumed “regular diet,” they died. The poop was crucial to their survival, providing both nutrients and microbes to strengthen their immune systems.
This is a pretty good conversation for the dinner table, as long as you steer it away from some kind of free-association insanity. But also out of genuine curiosity, I asked when this startling research had occurred. My guess was maybe a century ago, when biologists were following rubber-tree barons into South America. My kids didn’t remember.
This science shared with the elementary school kids was new scientific knowledge about the previously unstudied lives of little-understood lizards. I don’t know what kind of porcupine served as an “animal ambassador” at the school assembly, but I know it was in December when the discovery of an entirely new species of Brazilian porcupine was announced. And reading that news reminds me that another new species of Brazilian porcupine was announced in April of last year.
The iguana and both newly identified porcupines are, as seems almost guaranteed in the early 21st Century, in grave danger of extinction. In the porcupines’ case, 95 percent of their habitat is gone. And people still hunt them.
I believe we should gain strength from victories, encouragement from happy accidents, and real joy from being out in the natural world. So it is my duty to note that the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies both species of anteater under the designation of “Least Concern,” meaning the specter of annihilation is not yet hovering above their gene pool.
They also look like this:
The last member of this multi-purpose-room menagerie was a myna bird. The myna bird is a charming creature, not least because it can replicate all the idiotic sounds it hears: car alarms, pop songs, human speech, etc. Most distressing to the children at Monday’s wildlife assembly was that myna birds on Borneo—the third-biggest island on Earth, after Greenland and New Guinea—are known for their uncanny imitations of the chainsaws used by poor people to clear the forest to make cheap backyard furniture that ends up on sale at your local home-and-garden center.
It’s hard to keep up with everything that’s supposed to be right, because all the boring and time-consuming garbage of consumer life doesn’t leave much left over for any fun, let alone any grand ideals. But this is easy: Try not to buy cheap imported wooden furniture. You’ll occasionally see Rain Forest Certification or Forest Stewardship Council labels on “wood products,” and that’s fine if you can afford it. Otherwise, save your money. Get something off Craigslist or from a garage sale, sand it down, call it rustic. Anything that’s artfully beat up looks fancy with cloth napkins and an open bottle of wine.