Zoo bullies: Throwing their weight around

Q. What four-legged zoo favorite outsizes an 800-pound gorilla by plenty, has a reputation for squashing humans, and sports built-in jogging shoes? ­R. O'Donnell

 A. In Diatoms to Dinosaurs, Chris McGowan reports on a recurring theme among elephant keepers: No matter how friendly and cooperative the animals, chances are they'll eventually try to kill their handler.

Zoologist McGowan says he always assumed this was an accident of their size, but then he met a keeper who said they do it on purpose. "He told me about an elephant who used to gather up pieces of bread with his trunk and make a trail for birds to follow. When an unsuspecting bird strayed too close, the elephant would bring down his foot and squash it flat!"

Accounts from Africa tell of elephants attacking lions and trampling them to death.

The downside of being six-tons at the top of the bully chain is the plodding way an elephant moves, on stiff fat legs that must be held straight at all times, and every movement– e.g., rearing up on hind legs to reach branches– must be with great caution. Its thick short neck supports a ton of head; balloon-like footpads can be seen to pop out whenever a foot is lifted, designed to absorb the shock of such weighty footfalls like well-cushioned jogging shoes.


Q. If truth in advertising were required of matrimony, what statistical disclaimer might accompany the vow of love? ­Blackbeard

 A. The high of passionate love may be sustained for a few months, even a couple of years, but soon the giddy floatings on a cloud will fade, says David G. Myers in Social Psychology. After four years, look out!

Worldwide, notes anthropologist Helen Fisher, the fourth year of marriage is the peak divorce year. If the relationship is to last beyond that, it must settle into a steadier "companionate love."

Like any drug, romance first delivers a big kick, then tolerance develops. "Stopping the substance, however, does not return you to where you started," says Myers. "Rather, it triggers withdrawal symptoms– malaise, depression, the blahs." And countless mournful Country Western songs.

Is there another way? When Usha Gupta and Pushpa Singh compared love-based and arranged marriages in India, they found the former holding steady at a 7-out-of-10 self-rating for two to five years, then sinking to 5 from 5-10 years, to below 4 after 10 years, whereas arranged marriages started at 5.5, hit 7 by the end of 10 years and tended to stay there.

Sounding rather Eastern on the subject, Mark Twain wrote: "Nobody really knows what love is until they've been married a quarter of a century."


Q. If you tossed a penny off the top of the Empire State Building and it hit somebody on the sidewalk below, could it bore right through the skull? ­F. Wray

 A. Ignoring air resistance, a penny falling 1250 feet would reach a speed of 193 mph by the time it hit the street, much less than a bullet's speed but still dangerous, says UVA's Louis A. Bloomfield in How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life.

"Terminal velocity" for a falling object is where air drag balances weight and so no further acceleration occurs. For an aerodynamically poor penny, this would be early in its descent, probably at less than 100 mph. So if you could see the penny coming, you might catch it in your hand and suffer little more than a bruise!

A dropped object to worry about would be a ballpoint pen. It's heavier, and instead of tumbling like a penny it pierces through the air more like a falling arrow, faster and deadlier. Not at all theoretical is what happens to a bullet fired up into the air and then falling thousands of feet. "This can definitely kill," says Bloomfield, "and a relative of mine died this way at a Mardi Gras years ago."


Q. Through what exquisite design did Nature bring together malleus, incus and stapes–trio of bones making up the human middle ear–in a keen organ for survival fitness? ­Prince Charles

 A. Didn't work that way, say V.S. Ramachandran et al. in Phantoms in the Brain. Circuitousness and ad hoc evolutionary adaptation were more like it. For two of these bones– the malleus and incus– started out as jaw bones in ancient reptiles, hinging mouths wide to gobble huge prey.

Then as mammals evolved from reptiles, emphasis shifted to a single rugged chewing bone for chomping insects and other tough meaty prey, which just happened to free up the two other bones for co-option into the improved hearing system. This became all the more important for the new mammalian night-roamers.

So bizarre a solution was this that it couldn't have been guessed from considering the functional needs of the organism but required comparative anatomy studies and numerous fossil finds to sleuth it out. Any big lesson here? Mother Nature is "not an engineer, but a hacker."

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