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Saturday, May 20, 2017

GALAPAGOS PILGRIMAGE PART 4: Truth & the Unreliable Narrator

“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy." 
- Some old guy with all the best words
Male blue-footed booby assuming display posture.
Blue-footed-booby-doing-mating-display portion of photo (lower half) Credit: Dawn Cerrone. Diving-blue-footed-booby-portion of photo (upper half) Credit: Scott Dietz.
Human male assuming display posture 
(Picture posted on MadSci Network – not attributed)

That reminds me.

Sgt. Rock asked me about my trip to the Galapagos. 

With a perplexed forehead he said, “Why did you go to the Galapagos?” which to my ear included the subtext, “…when you could have laid back in St. Martin, sippin’ gin and juice?” (Editor’s note: After some reflection, it should be noted that the phrase, ‘sippin’ gin and juice’ would be more characteristic of something Kip might say.)

I suppose I could have explained how a tropical paradise holds reduced appeal for old fat men who haven’t come to terms with their diminished physicality (talk about existential angst) but instead I tried out my narrative about wanting to experience the truth of evolution. In the course of answering, I mentioned the marine iguanas unique to the Galapagos — evolved for life in the sea. 

Trying my best to parrot the information I gleaned from my guides, I told Sgt. Rock that only marine iguanas can swim. 

Sgt. Rock stopped me there, his formerly perplexed forehead resolving into a more confrontational furrowed-brow configuration. He told me about his recent seaside exploration of St. Martin and how its clumsy land iguanas, basking on high rocks at the shoreline, would occasionally misstep and plunge into the ocean. If I were to re-imagine how the conversation went from this point, it would go:

Sgt. Rock raised a single eyebrow, the hint of a smile emerging at the corner of his lips, coupled with that distinctive eye-sparkle which precedes devastating sarcastic wit. “Do you want to know how those LAND iguanas escaped their fates?” he asked in a purely rhetorical fashion. “They SWIM!” he boomed with the expected rhetorical flourish.

And instantly, my intellectual self- assuredness shriveled 2 - 3 inches.

I had to concede what I had said was wrong. Faced with Sgt. Rocks eyewitness account, I couldn’t dispute him. I tried to re-formulate my understanding. Perhaps marine iguanas are the only iguanas that ROUTINELY choose to go swimming — a decided advantage for an animal that subsists on intertidal and subtidal algae.

The teeth of the marine iguana, I was told, are specially adapted to scrape algae off rocks (they look like little forks — exaggerated tricuspids). I examined the skulls of mummified marine iguanas on two different islands and confirmed the presence of forked teeth — at least in the dead ones. Since then I’ve googled iguana teeth to find out what the teeth of land iguanas look like (though I have no reason to distrust my guides) and am satisfied that the teeth of land and marine iguanas differ.

Significantly, the comparison above is between Amblyrhynchus cristatus (the Galapagos marine iguana) with Iguana iguana and not Amblyrhynchus demarlii (the Galapagos land iguana). The specimens of land iguana I observed appeared to almost be gumming their food and I wasn’t able to see their teeth at all.
‘Knowing’ is not so easy. I can’t always go around dropping land iguanas into the ocean or prying open the mouths of marine iguanas to look at their teeth to verify all that I read and hear. I don’t have the necessary funds to follow marine iguanas into the sea to observe exactly what it is they do out there. So, I must often rely on the accounts of others. To rely on the accounts of others means the quality of my world-view is dependent on the quality of my sources. And because we live in a world so interdependent on disparate, specialized realms of technology, we have an implicit obligation to responsibly disseminate the bits we’ve managed to acquire.

I managed to track down my bad assumption about swimming iguanas to a beautiful scene from the movie Master and Commander. 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World     20th Century Fox
In the scene, Dr. Maturin and Midshipman Blakeney (both in an excited state) are sharing a telescope while observing the shoreline (for the first time) as their ship, the Surprise, approaches Isla Bartolome.  

Blakeney: Ooh Look! There’s one going for a swim.

Dr. Maturin: (Surprised) Iguanas don’t swim. They’re land animals.

Blakeney: (Peering through telescope) These ones do.

Dr. Maturin: (taking telescope) Well, I’ll be damned….

The implication here is that my comprehension of reality is clearly infected by movies — the distinction between fact and fiction, evidently blurry. It’s something to keep in mind (So special thanks to Sgt. Rock for refining my knowledge).

How we determine what is true is a topic that seems forever to be in conflict with what we wish to be true. Because I recognize that I have an affinity for the theory of evolution, and because I want to share the excitement and wonder that goes with learning about it, I’ll take extra pains to be reliable and not overstate things. 

TOP: Land Iguana observed on Isla Santa Fe: Eats cactus and plants — Lies around like a log.
BOTTOM: Marine Iguana observed on Isla Espanola: Swims out to sea and presumably eats algae — Sneezes salty water out its nose — Drapes itself over black rocks under the hot sun.
In his journal, Darwin wrote of marine iguanas, “It is a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements… Their tails are flattened sideways, and all four feet partially webbed. They are occasionally seen some hundred yards from the shore, swimming about; and Captain Collnett, in his Voyage says, “They go to sea in herds a–fishing, and sun themselves on the rocks;…”

Though the toes of the marine iguana were elongated and pointy, I wasn’t able to verify that they were partially webbed. And elsewhere in his notes, Darwin discredits Captain Collnett's careless assertion that the iguanas go a-fishing. He knew from cutting open their algae-stuffed bellies, that they were vegetarians. (Generally, it is safe to say that the guides discouraged me from doing similar experiments.)

The crew optimized our time by performing their navigation duties during the night.

At some point while I slumbered, the catamaran’s throbbing twin diesel engines eventually cut off with a small flourish of cascading, chattering anchor chains. Then, tethered in the darkness — stepping in and out of dreams, I began to discern the relative quiet of gentle waves rhythmically slapping the windward hull. Much later the equatorial sun leapt up into the sky pouring light into the portholes and I ascended the cabin’s ladder and stepped out into the new day. 

We were parked offshore San Cristobal, or Chatham Island as it was known when Darwin set foot here.

Looking down the coast of San Cristobal from Isla Lobos, Kicker Rock is visible on the horizon to the left, and in the distance beyond (slightly to the right) Cerro Brujo.

Isla Lobos isn’t much different from a jetty. It shelters a channel that makes an ideal sea lion hangout, and the rocky islet itself is something of a booby rookery.

The sea lions aren’t at all shy.

In fact, the sea lions, able to proceed with impunity, have taken on characteristics that we recognize in privileged humans — that is, they can be real buttholes.

Actually, for this picture to be homologous, I would have had to scratch my neck with my feet. Interesting sidenote: Sea lions have all their leg bones, but only the feet and ankles stick outside the contours of the body.

Sea lions, according to evolution’s narrative, were land-mammal relatives that found themselves returning to the sea. Though their limbs are flippers and their streamlined insulated bodies are fit for life in the ocean, they still sport the bones that are characteristic of all mammals.

In the same way I’m inclined to anthropomorphize dogs, I felt powerfully inclined to do so for sea lions as well. In the water, they seem curious and fun loving, and I am almost certain they invited the more graceful snorkelers among us to join them in their joyful swim-dancing. Unfortunately for me, squeezing my streamlined shape into a wetsuit resulted in a vague characterization of something like a lethargic killer whale and so I played my usual role as a wallflower.

Walking among the boulders of Isla Lobos, I got a more in-depth opportunity to observe the behaviors of the blue-footed boobies.

A chronic anthropomorphizer, I like to imagine these courting birds bragging about the size and color of their…feet.

The presentation of the ‘twig’ (The male has the tiny pupils).

One bachelor makes his move on a booby MILF.

Evidently, booby courtship can be just as confusing as other species'.

To be continued…

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