Friday, October 17, 2008

If I Ran the Circus

A news brief from a recent issue of Nature (October 9):
Of the animals that understand other species' vocalizations, almost all are social creatures with complex calls of their own. But ecologists have identified an eavesdropper that is neither social nor particularly vocal: the dik-dik.

Daniel Blumstein and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, suspected that Gunther's dik-dik (Madoqua guentheri), a heavily predated miniature antelope, could benefit from eavesdropping. To find out whether it does, the researchers played alarm calls of the white-bellied go-away bird (Corythaixoides leucogaster) and non-alarmist calls from the slate-coloured boubou (Laniarius funebris) to a group of dik-diks at the Mpala Research Centre in Laikaipia, Kenya.

The dik-diks in the study decreased their foraging and increased their head-turning only in response to the alarm calls.
"In all the whole town, the most wonderful spot
Is behind Sneelock's Store in the big vacant lot.
It's just the right spot for my wonderful plans,"
Said young Morris McGurk, "...if I clean up the cans.
I will put up the tents for my fantastic circus.
I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus.
I'll hoist up the curtains! The crowds will crowd in!
And my Circus McGurkus will promptly begin
With the loudest TA-TA that you ever have heard
As I welcome the white-bellied go-away bird.
What! Oh, where is he? Out chasing a hen?
The go-away bird has absconded again!
Never mind! Step right in! You don't want to be late
To yoo-hoo the boubou, the color of slate.
But where is our boubou? No cause for alarm.
He's not an alarmist, that's part of his charm.
And here! on Stage One! from Laikaipia!
The one who invented onomatopoeia,
The unsocial dik-dik whose voice is the same
As his simple, soft-spoken, antelopean name.
Oh dear, now our dik-dik has startled again,
Just as our show is about to begin.
He stands on the threshold turning his head.
The go-away bird always fills him with dread.
Ei! Ei! What a circus! My Circus McGurkus!
My headlining showstoppers all want to shirk us.
But Nature is full of zooific surprises.
You'd never see half if you had forty eyses!"

(With apologies to Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Circus.)