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One of the things which I think we humans underestimate is the degree to which organisms within ecosystems exchange information for mutual benefit.   The idea of wolves watching sheep in order to jump on them and eat them is familiar to us (we hominids are competitive and ruthless) but we are only now beginning to apprehend how widespread and commonplace symbiotic interactions are. For example, a team of Israeli scientists conducted an experiment to see whether pollinators communicate with the plants they are pollinating…and it seems like maybe they do!

The scientists subjected a common flower, the beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) to five sorts of noise: silence, a bee buzzing from four in away, and low, medium and high pitched electronic noises  The scientists assayed and measured the amount of nectar that the primroses produced after being exposed to these varying noises.

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Oenothera drummondii

Flowers exposed to silence and to high and mid-pitch noises produced the same nectar as always, however primroses which were exposed to the humming bee and to the low pitched computer noises produced sweeter nectar. The sugar content of the nectar flowers produced after “hearing” these sounds rose from between 12 and 20 percent!

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Flowers and bees have co-evolved for 100 million years, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they interact through sound (we already know that plants can communicate with hymenopterans by means of chemicals).  Yet somehow the results do surprise me.  Are plants hearing a great deal more than we suspect?  A great many flowers (and leaves) are shaped rather like ears.  Are different plants listening for different things. The nascent field of phytoacoustics will work to answer this question, but the fact that we are just now asking it leads me to believe that we humans have been talking rather than listening.  We are still not grasping the extraordinary scope and complexity of the webs of life which supports us (my experience with synthetic ecosystems already taught me about our great ignorance).  We need a greater understanding of dynamic ecology, yet our obtuseness in dealing with even the most familiar fellow life-forms is making it a challenge to even conceive of the right questions!

Lowland Streaked Tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus)

Lowland Streaked Tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus)

Despite appearances, this spiky creature was not lovingly crafted by Hieronymus Bosch. Instead it is a real animal–a lowland streaked tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus) which is a native of the wandering micro-continent of Madagascar (presently located off the east coast of Africa).   The little tenrec weighs only 200 grams (7 ounces) and measures 13-17 cm (5-6.5 inches) from the tip of its pointy bewhiskered snout to the end of its vestigial tail. The yellow-and-black creature is covered with scattered quills (some of which it can detach at will). The little animal lives in the eastern coastal rainforest where it subsists primarily on worms and small arthropods. It is active both by night and day.

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But perhaps you are asking just what a tenrec is to begin with (my word processor, for example, obdurately refuses to recognize the word). The tenrecs are a group of omnivorous (though largely insectivorous) mammals which live throughout Madagascar and sub-Saharan Africa. They seem to be descended from some basal line of edentate mammals—as evidenced by their low body temperature and by the fact that they have a cloaca (a multi-purpose orifice for excretion and reproduction). Across their range tenrecs evolved to fill many different ecological niches. Thanks to convergent evolution, various species of tenrecs look like mammals more familiar to us such as otters, opossums, rats, and shrews (the lowland streaked tenrec, for example, appears analogous with the insectivorous hedgehog) but these appearances are superficial. Tenrecs seem to be distantly related to other African mammals like elephant shrews, sirenians, and hyraxes. Their only close relatives seem to be the extraordinary golden moles (like Grant’s golden mole, the exquisite sand swimmer of the Namib Desert).

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As you might expect the lowland streaked tenrec utilizes its quills to deter predators—namely the disquieting fossa and various other carnivorous Malagasy mongooses. The tenrec can pivot the barbed spikes on its back and neck into an upright crest. Thus armed, the colorful little animal charges boldly at predators–which must perforce retreat or contend with a face full of barbed spikes. The lowland streaked tenrec is also unique among mammals in that it uses its spines for stridulation—a violin-style method of producing sounds to communicate. Like a cricket, the lowland streaked tenrec vibrates its quills together to make a strange shivering chatter (useful for finding mates and communicating in groups). You can hear the strange noise in the peculiar Youtube video below.

Female tenrecs mature quickly and can reproduce in as few as 25 days after they are born. They give birth to litters of 3 to 7 young.

National Museum of American History

National Museum of American History

The other day I was chatting with a friend about my long-ago job as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian history museum and we began to muse about what the quintessential artifacts of today will someday be. When historians of the future try to represent our time will they display a bunch of obsolete computer kit (which can not be made to works after a couple of years—much less decades or centuries), or Britney Spears memorabilia, or Segue scooters, or “as seen on TV” junk like salad shooters and such? What is the quintessential object which shows who we are and how we live? We came up with all sorts of answers—most of which did not paint contemporary culture in a wholly positive light—but the one which struck me as the truest was the simple disposable air horn.

An Air Horn

An Air Horn

An air horn is a plastic noisemaking reed attached to a jar of compressed air. When the player (possessor?) presses a button, the infernal device issues a hellish shriek of ear-piercing volume. I do not mean that last descriptor as a metaphor: air horns, like firearms and jet engines, are very capable of causing serious irreparable hearing damage. These horrid novelty items are available everywhere for next to nothing. People use them at sporting contests to distract the opposing team or sometimes in cruel pranks to make an unwitting victim panic. Mostly they are just used to call attention to the loutish person with the horn. Air horns have only one note, but that note is so loud it drowns everything else out—a perfect description of today’s celebrity personalities, advertising tactics, and political discourse.

Air horns evolved from the whistles of trains and the mighty horns of ships. These horns used compressed gasses from engine function in order to warn of eminent departure or collision. They had a real purpose. Yet, while it is possible that Alfred Hitchcock or Tom Clancy (or some other master of contrived suspense) could invent a scenario where a disposable air horn saved the day, I doubt it has ever happened. These objects exist only to make insufferably loud noise. If someone on the street was blowing one to warn of North Koreans, Godzilla, or zombie attack I would ignore it in the belief that it was just some drunken oaf showing off.

or we could just rename it the "fun horn"

or we could just rename it the “fun horn”

Worst of all, I think an air horn speaks directly to the reptile/Kardashian part of the brain which lurks in us all. I do not like air horns, but if someone gave me one I would be fascinated by it and would want to push it. It would sit there menacingly, like Chekov’s gun, just waiting till I could resist no longer and gave it a tiny test. I wish it were not so, but I would have to push it, despite the deleterious effect it would have on my personal relationships and happiness. Because they bear this unwholesome power, I would be shocked if air horns do not end up in a “late 20th/early 21st century” display case highlighting the nature of our times. They will sit there with other loud self-aggrandizing artifacts like Nascar jerseys, Jeff Koons art, MySpace, and Kanye West.

"I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice."

“I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice.”  [Actual Quote]

Air horns do indeed draw attention to us and tell everyone exactly who we are. It is a very well-made item—at least until someone invents something even louder and more annoying.   Or you could ignore my cranky jeremiad and write to tell me what you would choose as the quintessential object of this age!

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