Animals a lot like people when it comes to mistakes

If you’ve ever watched a desert bighorn sheep deftly leap from a precipitous crag to another, it may surprise you to hear that the bodies of such graceful beasts occasionally are found at the bottom of rocky cliffs. They stumble and fall to their deaths.

On a hot summer afternoon, a rattlesnake may go slithering across the highway in hopes of a field mouse lunch on the other side. But as we humans know, things don’t always work out the way we anticipate.

The farther our rattler slithers over bubbling asphalt, the toastier it gets until that moment of reckoning in the vicinity of the yellow center line.

Do I keep going or turn back? The snake that hems and haws too long in the middle of the road will cook itself to an untimely demise (or get run over by a truck).

Animals actually screw up just like people do. They miscalculate and have accidents. The inquisitive pooch who sniffs an angry porcupine ends up with a muzzle full of quills. Take hummingbirds. Eyeing their reflection in a window, they assume it’s another hummer and fly smack into pane glass. Oops.

In more than one incident reported by wildlife officials, a mountain lion has attacked a deer and found itself impaled on the antlers instead. Darn.

That brings us to last week’s column. It contained an error that needs to be corrected.

I misspelled the last name of park ranger Annie Runde, accidentally substituting a “g” for the “d” in her last name. After the column ran in Wednesday’s newspaper, I immediately realized what had happened (I’ve worked with her for years) and felt like an idiot.

I apologized to Annie, and promised to never call her Runge again.

As you might expect, Annie said no worries. She knows how to make people feel better (as an education ranger at Colorado National Monument, she works with children every week).

Unlike us imperfect humans, Mother Nature’s reputation for being flawless overshadows Darwinism. Plants and animals seem ideal examples of design in form and function. A spiderweb looks flimsy but survives bad storms and big wasps. Tulips never let a spring blizzard cramp their style. And wild horses on the Bookcliffs run like the wind.

Last week, I noticed a pine marten hopping along a dead tree. Deep in the woods near Steamboat Springs, its rust-colored body flowed like bourbon on the rocks. Smooth.

As someone who often trips over rocks on hiking trails, I admired that unassuming pine marten because it epitomized grace, beauty and pretty much everything I’m not. However embarrassing it is to make an error in public, the standard clichés apply here. No use crying over spilled milk, we’re only human, etc.

“What about Mother Nature’s mistakes?” I asked Steven Werman, a biology professor at Colorado Mesa University.

Werman thought about that for a moment. He offered examples of genetic mutations that cause survival problems for animals, such as a strange-looking frog born with its eyes inside its mouth.  (Try keeping your mouth wide open all the time just to see where you’re going.)

If we broaden our scope and examine the global picture, we find that entire species have serious design flaws.

Exhibit A: the unique two-legged upright posture of humans. What’s the issue?

“We’re the only animals on the planet with lower-back problems,” he said.

Sandstrom is a park ranger at Colorado National Monument and teaches at Colorado Mesa University. Email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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