Darwin’s Globetrotters – Top 10 Natural Trekkers
There must be a reason why we find ourselves travelling to various corners of the Earth. Perhaps it’s in our genes.
This year sees the bicentenary of the origin of Darwin, i.e. his birth. So, as part of the celebrations I’ve put together a list of the top ten animal species that best illustrate the wonders of evolution in travel; long distance wanderers, polar explorers and even a beach bum.
So, in no particular order other than that in which God created them,
1. The Bar Headed Goose
It took Hilary and Norgay until 1953 to do what these high fliers push out every year. They cruise through the Himalayas at altitudes of over 10km, higher even than Everest.
Their blood haemoglobin has a higher oxygen affinity than other geese, and one would assume, humans, so they are at a distinct advantage.
Still, not a bad show, considering they missed out on opposable thumbs with which to tie their crampons.
2. The Salmon
With Valentine’s Day upon us, couples jet off to any of the 59 official ‘cities of love’ for a little bit of courtship and maybe even some successful mating. With recession and climate change now more than just threats, we could all learn a thing or two from the most famous of all love-trekkers – the salmon – who manages to cross countries without spending a penny or leaving so much as a carbon molecule of a footprint.
Travelling over 1400km in some cases, and climbing over 2km in altitude, they make their way up from the ocean to fresher waters inland in order to spawn (although I’m sure it’s not put like that when chatting up the lady salmons).
God only knows (or perhaps he doesn’t) why the sea’s not good enough but it’d be impressive enough to see a salmon climbing the stairs, let alone 2km of counter-flowing river.
3. The Naked Mole Rat
The naked mole rat (NMR) compensates for being extremely ugly by also being one of the few, and the finest example of a eusocial mammal. In other words, NMR society has a structure similar to that of a honey bee, or army ant; it contains a Queen, Soldiers, Workers etc. They live in distinct colonies under the East African ground and have no interest whatsoever in power sharing agreements.
What’s interesting is that every once in a while a mole rat is born (naked) that doesn’t play by the rules. He or She makes a run for it, leaving the colony in search of new experiences, and kindred spirits. Although these ‘Dispersers’ rarely travel further than 300m (hardly the Far East), they are only 10cm long, naked and blind. It would be like walking six kilometres down the road in your birthday suit, in the hope of building a house and starting a family, when many of us rarely exceed two in the car, fully clothed.
It also raises the question about the existence of a ‘Traveller’s Gene’. A predisposed urge to travel, to leave home and tour the world. Naked.
Perhaps in 20 years time we’ll be able to blame our aimless wanderings on our genetics, although I suppose we already do, on our parents.
4. The Humpback Whale
Jennifer Figge recently swam the Atlantic. Big deal.
The Humpback Whale migrates 25,000 km every year, and doesn’t eat for half of it. Admittedly, Ms Figge is not a highly evolved marine mammal, nor am I implying she even resembles one, but there’s little doubt she was snacking away on her support boat for more than 12 of her 24 days at sea.
5. The Sooty Shearwater (also starring the Alaskan Bar-Tailed Godwit as himself)
Most of us hop on a plane, train or bus in search of something, whether it be God, adventure, or just the bread. In fact, the longest recorded animal migration, with stops, on Earth is on the look out for just that. Bread.
Well, fish and squid really.
In true ‘Ugly Shearwater Duckling’ style, the unassuming bird has been recorded travelling an astonishing 64,000 kilometres in a year, from New Zealand to the North Pacific in search of food.
The record for the longest non-stop animal migration is held by the Alaskan Bar-Tailed Godwit, another temporary resident of New Zealand. It’s been suggested that the Maoris discovered New Zealand by following this bird’s migratory route. With the Godwit gunning 11,500km in 8 days, one suspects the Maoris may have developed the outboard motor earlier than previously thought.
It’s fitting that the longest migrations belongs to birds that come from (OK, sort of) a country, which by all accounts, has the highest TPC (travellers per capita) in the world.
Ask any of the 12 Kiwi backpackers in your hostel.
6. The Locust
I suppose the locust is your package tourist. What the British and Germans, amongst many others, have done to the once-pristine South Spanish coast, locusts have done to swathes and swathes of Sub-Saharan Africa (although it’s debatable whether high-rise concrete tourist flats are really as bad as complete and utter vegetative destruction, followed by widespread starvation).
Fortunately, true to Darwinian theory, both locusts and package tourists suffer periodic extinctions due to the self-destructive tendency to use up all their resources, leaving the land unable to support them.
Unfortunately, there’s always another species of locust (and I hear the Russians are starting to get a bad rep) better-suited to pillage the next piece of ‘virgin territory’.
Perhaps a locust swarm would rid the Costa del Sol of its own plague by blocking the sun and sending them all packing.
7. The Lemming
Although it´s been scientifically proven that Lemmings don´t commit mass suicide (something that would have made Darwin look more than a little bit silly), the myths surrounding them, and their subsequent dispelling, helped to lay the foundations for species classification, and later on, Darwinism. In other words, with a little bit of investigation it´s possible to find an explanation for lemmings falling out of the sky that doesn´t necessarily involve divine intervention.
In fact, it’s periodic population explosions that force millions to seek out pastures new, jumping from cliffs and swimming until exhaustion in some cases.
On a more philisophical note, is it not better to die trying to get somewhere in life rather than staying where you are and dying anyway?
8. The Narwhal
The Narwhal runs the gauntlet, literally. In order to return to the coast during the summer ice melt, they must find and navigate through newly-opening cracks in the ice. It’s a real bolt for freedom because the cracks don’t necessarily stay open and narwhals can find themselves trapped in an escapable ice sheet. Narwhals are mammals and so need to surface for air at regular intervals, they can’t just swim out from under kilometres of inpregnable ice.
It’s like having your passport stamped at the Greenland border post, only to have it refused at the Canadian one, leaving you stuck in no man’s land, to drown.
9. The Emperor Penguin
The Emperor Penguin combines the qualities of a polar explorar with that of a deep sea diver. They are left practically alone on the ice shelf during the Antarctic winter to brave temperatures of -40 degrees and wind speeds of 144kph. When spring (or its Antarctic equivalent) arrives and they can finally venture out to catch fish, they dive to depths of over 500 metres. It’s hard to imagine Amudsen getting more than his head under dressed in all those furs.
It’s even harder to imagine him walking to the South Pole balancing an egg between his legs.
10. The Coconut
Ocean currents distribute the nuts around the tropics, with some nuts floating aimlessly for years on end. While most eventually tire of travelling and set down roots on a quiet little beach somewhere, the fate of others is to wander restlessly, destined to become fairground target practice or exotic flavouring.
Something to think about the next time you bite into a Bounty.
In summary, I’ll quote the BBC Radio 4 program ‘World on the Move‘,
“Most animals migrate for food, space or sex. Why do you go on holiday?”
Anyone I’ve missed who you think should be in the top 10? Let me know.
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