It's the end of spring quarter here at Cal Poly, which means that my herpetology students have turned in their projects. Instead of term papers that no one wants to write or read, my students do creative projects that they share with the rest of the class.
This quarter, as always, I taught the students how plethodontid salamanders lost their lungs over evolutionary time, and the how space in the chest is filled with an elaborate musculo-skeletal structure allowing them to project their tongues to capture prey, sometimes great distances. (read more about this here)
|A plethodontid salamander projects its tongue to capture prey. Image|
Wren's project blew me away. She wrote a Just-So story in the style of Rudyard Kipling on how the plethodontid salamander got its tongue. It is witty and lovely, and I am pleased to share Wren's work here as a guest blog. Enjoy!
How the Plethodont Got His Tongue
By Wren Thompson
Not long after the High and Far-Off times when the world began, O’ Best Beloved, the Plethodont did not have a Long Tongue. He had only a small little pad, a ‘scule little tongue that would wag to and would wag fro but never—never, Best Beloved—both to and fro.
It was not long after the world began that a new Plethodont made friends: the Chameleon and the Tree Frog, both Agile and Formidable Predators. The three friends could oft be found hunting on the shores of some-such grey-green pond or some-another chuckling brook, hunting for Agile Prey. The friends would blend with their speckle-spotted hides and quiet toes among the mosses and branches and ferns, hunting the Fly, the Moth; the Cricket, the Grasshopper, all from their most various perches and hides.
To carry this tale any further, however, I must first describe to you just how the Chameleon and Frog were such Wondrous Hunters with Long Tongues of Agile Prey:
Chameleon had been given—back in the High and Far-Off times when the world began, but that is a tale for another time—a tongue to be envied, a great muscly contraption with twists and turns and folds and flaps, all with her sticky tongue pad at the tip, poised to snatch Agile Prey from branch, stone, air, and leaf.
Tree Frog in his turn had a far less impressive arsenal, yet when tempted with the fattest and tastiest Cricket could flip-flap-flop forward his tongue in his jump, catching the most rollicking Cricket with both tongue and tooth. The insects hardly knew where to jump, for wherever they turned was the threat of Unenviable Digestion.
While they hunted on the springy moss and winding branches, Chameleon and Tree Frog often tried to help the new Plethodont to become yet another Formidable Predator. Every which way an ant would gallop, the Plethodont’s ‘scule little tongue could never reach, leaving him Hungry and Grumbly. His friends looked on, hinting and hoping for the little Plethodont to learn Formidable Predator skills.
“Perhaps if you were to jump a little further, or a little faster?” Tree Frog would say, as his lean legs launched him towards his next prey.
“Or perhaps if you blended with branches, and kept an eye out for slower prey?” Chameleon would follow, her odd eyes darting to watch a wayward wasp.
The new Plethodont was not encouraged, and his thin skin—remember that skin, Best Beloved! — itched and scratched and rankled and wriggled with their suggestions. It simply wasn’t fair that he had such ‘scule little tongue, that his legs were too short and his eyes pointed only one way. With every hint and hope his friends handed to him, the Plethodont fumed more; for he was not a Calm and Tranquil animal, nor was he one of Infinite Wisdom and Veracity. The Plethodont steamed and grumbled all the way home, his stomach full only of hunger and resentment.
The new Plethodont then had an idea: He could not hear their stinging hints and hopes if the only words he could hear were his own! He would fill the air around him with Meaningless Chatter that would stop the hints and the hopes, and his friends would have to realize that he simply would never be a Formidable Predator.
The next day as the friends went a’hunting beside some-another chuckling creek, the new Plethodont brought along his Shining Idea. All afternoon, the Shining Idea bobbed behind his long tail like a wayward balloon, forever glimmering and tempting the new Plethodont. After failing to catch yet another acrimonious ant, Chameleon and Tree Frog stepped and hopped over to help their friend find a meal.
“Perhaps this time you could—”, started Chameleon.
As soon as the words were off her impressive tongue, the new Plethodont unleashed a torrent of words. His Shining Idea was released, and from his ‘scule little mouth spilled forth Meaningless Chatter. He chattered and chittered; babbled and burbled; proselytized and preached; ranted and raved; and he shouted words of origins both High and Low, in the Old Tongue and in spite for his friends’ Long Tongues.
As he pronounced and denounced so loudly and incessantly, all the flies and crickets and worms and ants went away, hoping to escape the lambasted litany. As he prattled and rattled on, Chameleon’s odd eyes met those of Tree Frog’s wet head, and they exchanged The Look—Best Beloved, you know the kind—that said all things while no things were said on their parts. And in the moments after The Look, Chameleon and Frog parted ways from the Plethodont, heading up, up into the trees where the breeze whispered away the Plethodont’s words.
Through all this the new Plethodont followed his Shining Idea, vocalizing and verbalizing, his ‘scule little tongue wagging now both to and fro. His ‘scule little tongue grew and grew the more he used it, swelling out of his mouth so that it was no longer ‘scule or even miniscule, and pressing back down his throat so it was no longer little, past his heart that so boiled with envy for Chameleon’s tongue, down to his little legs that Tree Frog had so wished he would use well.
With triumph, the new Plethodont pressed on with his oration to show his friends—now long gone, little to his knowledge—just how fine his new tongue could be. He pressed and pressed until finally— with a small pop and an even smaller wheeze—he could press no more.
Despite his now eloquent, elegant tongue that attached down to his pelvis, he had no lungs to murmur, let alone shout. His great tongue—so long hoped-for by the Plethodont—had destroyed his lungs, taking forever his power of speech.
Over and over the new Plethodont tried to call to his friends up in the trees for help, help that he had long shunned and rankled over, but they could not hear his breathless cries up, up in the trees with the whispering breeze that drowned out his tirade so well.
He squeezed and pushed his Long Tongue that so quickly felt cursed, and it shot from his body to the one ant left beside the chuckling creek. The new Plethodont pulled the ant closer to hear his whispered calls, but his Long Tongue shot back into his body so quick that the little ant was gone before it knew. After such long resistance and repugnance, the Plethodont had become a Formidable Predator…
But his friends were nowhere near to see.
The new Plethodont sat beside the babbling, rollicking, chuckling creek, and breeze tickled his Thin Skin—did you remember that skin, O’ Best Beloved? — that had taken his friends from him. The tiniest breath of air filled the new Plethodont’s body through that Thin Skin, and in that moment the Plethodont was filled with another flood of eloquence of love for his friends. The Plethodont pushed, wishing this time to unleash a soaking monsoon of apology…but could only manage a single quiet word that the chuckling creek erased from the World’s Memory.
And this, Best Beloved, is why the Plethodont has such a very long tongue and must live beside chuckling creeks for company, breathing through the Thin Skin that doomed him to be without Chameleon and Tree Frog and words. He is most certainly a Formidable Predator, and his Long Tongue will keep him alive for eons to come.