Spring, as the frenzily copulating Swainson’ses across the street will tell you, is a time for reproduction, rebirth and regeneration. But Nature, scrupulous accountant that he-she is, demands competition, carnage and sacrifice in return for all that blooming Qi. As Darwin put it in The Origin:
We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.
And while, as Darwin notes, we may personally do our best to ignore the harsh realities of the season, our religious traditions do their darnedest to remind us. Some one billion or so practicing Catholics are fasting today, Good Friday, ostensibly to mark the date a dude was “nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change” (in the words of Douglas Adams). Jews will be celebrating their own spring holiday, Passover, this weekend, remembering a spate of plagues, the decimation of a reproductive cohort, and a hasty flight into a forbidding desert.
The Mesoamericans had their own grisly spring rites, centered around this guy:
Xipe Totec, “Our Lord the Flayed One”…Sort of an Aztec cross between Demeter and Leatherface.
Which brings me to this article appearing in this week’s issue of Nature, documenting an odd behavior observed in one species of a curious group of legless amphibian known as caecilians (you’re breaking my heart). It seems that the devoted mommies offer up their own skin (amounting to up to 1/7th of their own body weight!) as a meal for their recently hatched young:
While this kind of parental investment is rather common in the animal kingdom (think milk and placentas), this is a rather dramatic example of motherly love to say the least. Interestingly, in other species of caecilian that give live birth, the young feed on the lining of their mother’s oviduct during gestation, which the authors of the current study propose as a possible precursor behavior to the skin-snacking (I misread the abstract, the authors in fact suggest the reverse). As mentioned in this news article on the study it is fairly common for other amphibians to feed on their old skin after shedding.
Happy spring and don’t forget to give mom a call this weekend!