Venoms and repellents are hardly rare in nature: Many insects, frogs, snakes, jellyfish and other phyletic characters use them with abandon. But mammals generally rely, for defense or offense, on teeth, claws, muscles, keen senses or quick wits.
Every so often, however, a mammalian lineage discovers the wonders of chemistry, of nature’s burbling beakers and tubes. And somewhere in the distance a mad cackle sounds.
Skunks and zorilles mimic the sulfurous, anoxic stink of a swamp. The male duck-billed platypus infuses its heel spurs with a cobralike poison. The hedgehog declares: Don’t quite get the point of my spines? Allow me to sharpen their sting with a daub of venom I just chewed off the back of a Bufo toad.
Other mammals chemically gird themselves against smaller foes: Capuchin monkeys ward off mosquitoes and ticks with extracts gathered from millipedes and ants, while black-tailed deer rub themselves liberally with potent antimicrobial secretions produced by glands in their hooves. According to William Wood, a chemistry professor at Humboldt State University in California, these secretions have been shown to be effective against a broad array of micro-organisms, including acne bacteria and athlete’s-foot fungus, which could explain why teenage deer are especially diligent with the hoof-rubbing routine right before the annual deer prom.
Even though I liked the article a lot and thought the writing was marvelous, at moments it verged on self parody of the literary style of writing that the NY Times is reputed to allow to seep into even the silliest corners of the paper. A bit like The Onion’s Us Quarterly piece.