What’s Going on Back There?

13 10 2008

The tail is the section at the rear end of an animal’s body; in general, the term refers to a distinct, flexible appendage to the torso. It is the part of the body that corresponds roughly to the sacrum and coccyx in mammals and birds. While tails are primarily a feature of vertebrates, some invertebrates-including scorpions and springtails-have tail-like appendages.” Wikipedia

Consider the tail. The other day I did exactly that. If you look at it objectively, isn’t the tail a truly odd looking thing? How many millions or billions of years did it take for evolution to develop it? The tail is certainly popular, lots of critters have them. I supposed they began as an improved means of locomotion and maneuverability in sea life, which just brought them along when they became amphibians and began living part of their life on the land.

But, it just kind of sticks out there, in the rear. It signals happiness in dogs and irritation in cats. It helps cheetahs make turns during high speed chases and it lets new world monkeys hold on in the trees. The tail served as a counter-balance for bird-hipped dinosaurs, and some herbivorous quadrupedal species came with spiked varieties.

I remember, as a child, living in Houston, Texas. Semi-tropical and chock full o’ vermin. Spiders, insects, lizards, snakes, everything that thrived in a swamp did well in Houston. One summer day, I was on the back porch, playing, when, from the depths of the house, my mother let out a blood-curdling scream. I ran to see what was the matter and my father arrived at about the same time. There, on the living room floor, was a tiny wiggling piece of something. Was it alive? It seems Mother had seen this small green thing sticking out from our window unit air conditioner, and thinking it was a part of the unit, she took hold.

It was a lizard’s tail, and it came loose from the lizard, and there Mother stood for a second or two with this wiggling thing between her fingers. Then the tail, thrown by Mother, went airborne, and the shrieks began. Huh, all over a tail.

Snakes have a tail. Of course, they look like they are all tail. The snow leopard has a particularly long tail, thereby defying the rule wherein the colder the average temperature, the shorter the extremities. In other words, if the outside temperature averages low, then the local animals tend to have shorter legs and tails and ears to reduce heat loss, but not the snow leopard. It has a long, glorious, thickly-furred tail. Perhaps it helps maintain balance on the tricky slopes of the Himalayas.

And then there are humans, and apes, who have no tails at all, or, at best, vestiges. I have a friend who has a vestigial tail, and although I have never seen it, he swears that it is finely furred and ladies swoon. Some things are best left un-bared. But we bipeds, at least the mammals, seem to have evolved away from tails.

What about the other bipeds, the birds? They have tails, some developed to gorgeous extravagances, like the peacock. Well, most bird’s tails aid in navigation, they are flight gear. And, they came down from the ancestors of the birds, dinosaurs. Of course, bird’s tails are not real tails, like lizards or crocodiles or tigers. They are mainly feathers. This makes sense in the reduction of weight for flight. So, no real tails for birds. Next time you have roast chicken, take a look at that tiny little appendage at the rear. We used to call it the “Bishop’s nose.”

This also started me wondering what happens to balance and emotions when we dock a dog’s tail. Many years ago I had agreed to take a pup from a litter of Cocker Spaniels belonging to a friend. One day she called me and said all the pups had just had their tails docked. “Ai-ya!” That sounded horrible. I wonder what life would have been like if my little Maggie had lived out her 18 years with a full tail. I guess we cut the tails off of fighting dogs so whatever they are fighting can’t grab it. Guard dogs like Doberman Pinchers have docked tails, but not German Shepherds. And why cut off the tail of a hunting dog like a cocker? I don’t know, but if aliens from another planet ever arrive and begin raising humans for show…I wonder if they’ll clip our ears. I always thought the ear was one of the funniest looking parts of the human body. I mean it’s not cute and perky like the ear of a dog or a cat or a fox or a horse.

As I followed my thought processes down various back alleys in my evil little brain, I began to view the variety of tails in this world as akin to Skinner’s rats. I read, long ago, that B.F. Skinner once decided to see what would happen if he walked through his laboratory and fed all the rats at random. He continued this experiment and over a period of days, the rats began doing strange and wondrous things. One would roll over as Skinner approached and another would dance on its hind legs. Well, these were all behaviors that the various rats were engaged in when Skinner fed them, and they decided that they were being reward for said behavior and so began rolling and dancing for their supper.

So, perhaps the weirdness that is time, lots and lots and lots and lots of time rewarded little peculiarities that gave a single member of a species a tiny edge. And this changed over all those millions and billions of years and became a tail and the tail, which must be an advantage in most species, the tail developed in myriad ways to all the glorious multitudes that we have today. And thereby hangs a…well, you know.

 

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