When I think of evolution, I think: 'It's good, yeah, but have you ever looked properly at a baboon's arsehole?' Next time you have a spare minute and you want to distract yourself from work or your life, just google " baboon + arsehole" and just... just behold them. Look at them. Look at the state of a baboon's arsehole. Like an apple gone very, very wrong. Doll's head made out of human flesh. A heart in the shape of a nightmare. Why, evolution? Why would you do baboons like that?
Well, science writer Mara Grunbaum has kind of been wondering the same thing. In January 2013, she started a Tumblr called WTF Evolution?, to document all the weird animals and all the weird and wonderful ways evolution has made them look like dicks. There's a pelican that looks like a urinal. A shark that looks like someone put an old wet doily on a toad. And some monkeys with really big balls.
And now those monkey balls have been made into a book. So I called Mara up and we talked about mucus ropes, compacted whale shit, and how giraffes can explode their brains.
VICE: So, this whole thing started off the back of your Tumblr. How long have you been doing that? What's your background? How come you are qualified to be sarcastic about evolution?
Mara Grunbaum: Well, if you ask my parents they will say I have been qualified to be sarcastic for some time. But professionally, my background is as a science writer, so I studied writing and a bit of science. I did a Masters programme in report writing on science and the environment. So I worked for a magazine and stuff like that. And I have always been pretty interested in the weird animal side of things. I started the Tumblr in January 2013 and it took off from there.
Obviously some people aren't too wild about evolution. Do you ever get any "this ugly fish is God's creation so don't have a go at it"-type comments?
I've gotten a couple like that. Not a whole lot. The audience is fairly self-selecting, so people who don't believe in evolution won't read it and those who do get it are with me. Although there was a Facebook page that started ripping off the dialogue I was doing on the blog and turning them into dialogues between evolution and God. That was weird. And also plagiarism.
RIGHT: Ugliest animal. Go.
Well, tapirs are pretty ugly. That's a good one: with the long nose and weird face. Let's see what else... it's so hard picking one. They are all equally ugly and wonderful! I guess the proboscis monkey is pretty ugly; it's the one with the big dangly nose.
Doesn't that nose help them make a weird screeching sound or something?
Yeah, they screech, and while they screech the nose points up and forward in this bizarre way.
What's the point in that?
I'm not sure they entirely know, but the sense I get is that it is a threat-display kind of thing. And the nose itself might attract females the bigger and danglier it is.
This is called a Piglet Squid (Photo by Gary Florin/Rex USA)
Figures. Did you get a lot of moments researching the book where you saw something and thought, 'Well, that's pointless.' Like: What's the most useless evolution you've seen?
Yeah, there were a lot. Some of them are ridiculous but serve some purpose for mating, or defence. The one that may have a function, but as far as we know we haven't been able to figure it out, is a bird called the horned guan. They have this big... well, they are pretty normal looking. But then they have this big weird horn bump thing sticking out the top of their head. It looks like cartoons where someone gets hit on the head with a mallet. And no one has no idea why it's there.
I'm looking at a picture of a horned guan right now, and that's not a good horn. It looks like it comes out their eye.
It looks like they have a weird fungal growth or something
Anyway, I was going to ask you about the weird sex things.
What's the deal with that zebra that tastes the females' urine to know if it's business time?
Yeah, that's something a lot of mammals do. Horses, zebras, deer: stuff like that. They have glands in their mouth that help them sense pheromones in the air so they sniff or lick up urine of animals to figure out what's going on. We humans don't have that, thankfully.
I guess it's good to know they are not just being freaky and they are actually doing it for a reason. Were there any other weird animal sex discoveries you made? Like the preying mantis and their sex-death?
There is a whole chapter in the book about things that look like weird anatomical parts or weird sexual behaviours. I'm a fan of leopard slugs: they are hermaphrodites, so they have male and female genitalia, which is useful because they move around so slowly it takes a long time to get around – so that way, whatever slug they find, they can mate with.
They have this ritual where for hours they climb up to a tree branch and circle around each other, getting closer and closer, crawling through each other's slime – that gets them ready to go. Then they intertwine their bodies and make this rope of mucus. They fall off the tree branch intertwined and their penises come out and it looks like this translucent flower beneath them. It looks pretty creepy, actually. Then they drop to the ground. This isn't in the book, but sometimes in some species the penises get stuck, so in order to extract themselves from one another they have to chew each other's penises off. Or their own.
Speaking of dicks, what I am looking at is the Caecilian snake that looks like a dick. Why does this Caecialian snake look like a dick?
Well, it looks like a snake and looks like a penis, but it's actually an amphibian that doesn't have legs. There is a bunch of different species but they just rediscovered this one and it's the biggest one they have found. They live in water and out of the way, so you have to dig them to see them. They breathe through their skin and don't have eyes – they might have super basic light censoring things, but we don't know for sure. But they don't all look like penises as much as this one does.
But in the grand scheme of things, what is the point of an eyeless penis salamander?
I would argue there is no real grand point to species. Things just happened, and if they work well enough at surviving, they just sort of stick around. If you work in the dark, why bother having eyes? I'm not sure what penis salamanders eat but they fulfill some ecological purpose.
Even those who understand evolution get into the habit of thinking traits evolved for a reason. But the reason is applied later, once it becomes a useful purpose. It's not like, "Oh, what's the best way to design this creature? I know, I'll make it look like a giant purple penis. That'll be handy."
Last week a porpoise washed up on shore and a drunk guy manhandled it a mile inland and then left it there and long story short: I mentioned ambergris in passing and a guy got mad at me on Twitter because I said ambergris is vomit and not shit. So: what is it? There are a couple of pages on it in the book. I am fascinated by it.
Well it's not really quite poo, either. It's this weird mixture of stuff that they haven't been able to digest, like squid parts. They eat a ton of squid, and the parts they can't digest start moving through their intestine and get mixed with poo and other stuff, which forms this big ball so they can keep pooping. Sometimes the ball causes a blockage that can kill them.
When they die and their bodies start to break down, the ambergris gets out and floats around. Eventually this poop ball washes up on shore, and it's a highly prized ingredient for perfume.
Did you discover any favorite animals or evolutionary quirks where you thought, 'Oh. Well that's my favourite one now'?
Well, I mean it's sort of like asking me to choose between my children...
Pick one, though.
One of the really interesting ones – one that kind of shows evolution is working but in a weird, terrible way – is an underwater parasite called a tongue eating isopod. It lives in a fish's mouth, and they clamp on to the fish's tongue and feed on mucus and stuff from the fish until, eventually, the tongue withers away and dies. But its OK for the fish because the isopod is in there clamped on to the withered stub of the fish's tongue, and it's roughly the same size as a fish's tongue, so the fish can pretty much use it as a tongue. I think, as far as scientists have found, it's the only example of a parasite replacing part of a fish's body. It seems like the fish don't mind. Sometimes they come in through the gills and mate with the one on the tongue.
That's some proper evolution, there.
Right? But it's all kind of "what the hell?!"
So, enough messing about: what's the deal with giraffes?
Well, giraffes... the crazy long necks help them to eat leaves – if you have seen giraffes fight, they swing their necks in a crazy way. So the one with the longer, crazier neck may be able to hit the other giraffe harder. But when they have to bend their heads down – to drink water, for example – they have to do this weird splayed leg position, and part of that is so they reduce the angle at which their neck is pointed down so the blood doesn't rush to their head and explode their brain.
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