Left A’skink’ For More

“Hiss…hiss…click…click… the Attini N team knocked you off your feet didn’t it (see my post “Ant, Yet Signific‘ant” of Dec 25)? Love those ladies, I tell you, they’re such a riot”, a thick voice mocked me from atop the low compound wall to my left. Still kneeling in the long grass off the path to the creek, I raised my head to level with a skink who had just arrived there to tan himself in anticipation of the morning sun. “And you rightly deserve so”, he continued. “I do not recall having laid eyes upon you before, so how have I offended you?” I enquired puzzled. “Well, you humans are so full of yourself even though you know so little of anything besides your own small world”, said the skink unemotionally, “open your eyes and seek, then you shall discover”, he suddenly sounded spiritual though I knew he was being pragmatic.

“For example, there is so much to learn from us skinks; and yet the only thing you do when you see us is chase us back into the foliage, as if our sole purpose in life is to come out to bite you – we are non-poisonous by the way and we are least interested in you!” the skink continued. “I am interested, truly; please enlighten me”, I pleaded. “Well, you listen to old Mushu and I like it!” the skink sounded pleased, “OK, I will reveal a little, but only till the sun shines bright, OK?” Mushu was more jovial now, “We skinks, totalling about 1500 species, are not true lizards since most of us do not have a pronounced neck and our legs are relatively smaller, some of my brethren have lesser than five digits on the legs and some move more like snakes than lizards – in fact some of our species have no legs at all! So we are considered a sort of a link between snakes and lizards. Like many lizards we can release our tails as an anti-predator mechanism when threatened; the tail continues to thrash due to strong muscles and distracts the enemy enough to help us execute a smooth getaway. Oh, don’t worry; we regenerate the tail eventually but it does require a lot of energy. Hence some of us stealthily return to the site of action after it is safe and consume the released tail, if it is still lying there I mean, to regain some of the energy”, Mushu chuckled.

“What is more interesting is that we skinks are considered evolution in action – we are some of those rare creatures which you can actually see evolving! Let me go back into the evolution textbooks a bit. You would know that unless the environment changes, the inhabitants do not change; evolution is brought about by changes that happen due to adaptation of species for survival. A famous example is the peppered moth: Before the industrial revolution, a more speckled variety of this moth was predominant. But as soon as the light surfaces started getting darker due to pollution, due to their pale and mottled appearance they became easy prey for birds. In order to survive, the species then quickly mutated and developed a darker colouration for better camouflage!”

“Similarly, we skinks are evolving to stand up to the challenges of survival. One of my species, Saiphos equalis, has the capability to either lay eggs or give live birth. As the eggs become more vulnerable to predators and extreme weather, it shifts from laying eggs to giving live birth, since the babies are then protected by spending more time inside the mother’s body. When they lay eggs, the embryos inside get their supply of calcium from the thick shell. Babies born of live birth do not have this advantage. So that these babies do not face calcium deficiency, the mother’s body supplies them with calcium through what appears to be a primitive placental system. In fact another of my species, Mabuya heathi has such a highly evolved placenta that it resembles that of some early mammals! The progression from laying eggs, which have an incubation period of one to two months in a potentially hostile environment, to live birth which offers a greater chance of survival, is thus a major evolutionary step for us.”

“Although, in the wider world, whether viviparity is better than oviparity or ovoviviparity is quite a contentious issue”, Mushu continued broodingly, “I do have some thoughts on it, but hey, here comes the sun! So that’s a topic for another day as it is time now to seek inner peace”, the sagacious reptile trailed off closing his eyes with a content smile as the sun hit his bronze back giving it a dull, though rich, sheen.

– Narendra Nayak © 2018


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