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December 2, 2009

Accepting One’s Inadequacies

Tom McLaughlin

London – I had the pleasure of visiting many scientists in the Museum of Natural History in this fabled town. My good friends, Jan and George, scientists in their own right who work there, introduced me to these scholars and they patiently explained their research.


One gentleman was working on bird lice .These itchy critters are specific to bird species. One louse will live on a robin but cannot feed on a cardinal. To make matters more daunting, a louse may live only on the wing or back of the bird and nowhere else on the body. That means there could be several different species on the same bird.


My new found friend is studying the evolutionary relationship of lice on mockingbirds in the Galapagos Islands. When Darwin was there, he first noticed there were differences in these birds depending on which island they inhabited. From what I understand, he was going to use the mockingbird as and example in his book "Origin of the Species, but others convinced him to use the finches instead, citing they were better examples.


The study this scientist has undertaken involves the evolutionary relationships between the birds and the lice. As the birds evolved, so must the lice is his theory. Now he needs to prove it. He will unravel the DNA and compare it to more primitive species. The lice on each bird should be different as each is a different species. But did it change? Fascinating stuff.


On a side note, I was informed that lice do not inhabit all species of apes and monkeys. For example, the orangutans do not have lice as none feed on them. Nobody seems to know why.


As many of you are aware, I have been a student of these magnificent creatures and a blinding flash of inspiration struck. This happens to me very rarely. All orangutans are solitary and live in the forest alone except at mating time. I believe they are solitary because they do not have lice and do not need others to groom and pull the lice off as other social apes and monkeys do. Remember, you read it here first. No lice, no need for others to groom, therefore a solitary existence. When I presented my theory, the other scientists thought about it and said more study would be required. At least they didn't say I was crazy.


While sitting in the upper floor lunch room, I badgered a lady who was eating her egg salad sandwich and obviously wanted to be left alone. With me around, that is not possible.


She related she was working on bottle flies, those ugly green and blue big devils. I inquired further and she quietly related it to forensics. This perked my curiosity. According to her, the maggots discovered on bodies can pinpoint the day of death. I asked about the television shows that indicated these revolting creatures could relate the time down to the second. "Yes, she died at 9:35 and 14 seconds on February 3," I remember one television show forensic scientist stating. "Not true" she informed.


Her task attempts to pinpoint the time of death more accurately to give police a better framework. In this way they can eliminate suspects more quickly and concentrate on those who were around when the killing occurred. She has some formidable obstacles. A body found in London, which is 7 C warmer than the rest of England throws off the data as does global warming. I have no doubt this bright young lady will succeed in her work.


A young doctoral student I met, not associated with the Museum, had spent years working with the intelligent levels in crows. She also attempted to ascertain if they have different personalities. She placed a small object, like a dime, in a cage with the bird. She then measured the amount of time it took for the bird to approach and manipulate the coin. The earlier the bird did this the braver they were. The others were just plain chicken. (Sorry about that.) I am not quite sure where she will eventually go with this, but I did find it very interesting. I am not sure why.


I spent ten days with some of the great minds of biology and, at first, felt very inadequate. However, they put me at ease and helped me understand the basics as I stumbled along and tried to comprehend ideas that well were above me. This is science at its best, where everyone can at least grasp the magnificent ideas that are quickly changing our world.


...Life is good...


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