Mrs. Malaprop on Monsters in Nature:
The 31st Malaprop Lecture
in the Malaprop Lecture Series
Underwritten by the Malaprop Foundation
Generously Supported by Mrs. Malaprop
Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
–Shamelessly aided and abetted
By Richard L. Hokey in return
For a Six Figure Monthly Salary
From the Malaprop Trust
WARNING: This essay is a bit of pure silliness written in the spirit of foolish optimism that this year should be better for all of us than this last year was; so if you’re not in a mood for something silly, you might want to try reading the Oxford English Dictionary instead which should keep you occupied for at least a year.
Note: For those of you not familiar with Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals written in 1775 at the age of 23, he introduced the pompous and linguistically pretentious Mrs. Malaprop who became the epitome of one who misused words in egregious ways and generally abused language. Shakespeare had already used such devices and many writers and comics have subsequently employed them, but Mrs. Malaprop remains, as it were, the grand champagne.
Thank you Laddies and Gentlewomen. I want to begin by thanking the Reverend Dean Samuel Spooner who is the grandson of William Archibald Spooner, the famous Oxford don much to be preferred over the Whoreton Don of Trump. However, I have been admonished that tonight I should esshoe politics. So, we’ll move on to other monsters.
Most people when they think of monsters imaginate something large and dramatically threatening and destructive. However, there are many, many micro-monsters and it is with those we shall begin. We can start with viruses and just ignore all that fiddle-diddle about whether viruses are alive or not. The great debraid–utter nonsense. Why do the quacks constantly assure us–oh, that flu shot contains only dead virus–but that the word “dead “here really means that the virus is “inactive.” Well, when it’s active–going out partying and whooping it up at the bars--doesn’t that mean its alive?
Viruses come in a variety of shapes and sizes–teeny, teenier, and ultra-teeny. A highly interesting type–which is very perverse; it eats bacteria–is the bacteriophage. There are some that look like ultra-mini-micro-teensey-weensy moon landers.
Joshua Lederberg, the distinguished biochemist, stated that the virus is the greatest threat to the survival of the human species. Talk about a really unfair David and Godzilla battle–how can you defense yourself against an enema which you can’t even see?
Well, moving up the biological ladder–I assume we all went to school where we had those dreadful gymnastical sessions where one had to climb ladders and ropes. Fiscally Education teachers–talk about monsters! I paid my governess to do those exorcizes for me.
So, the next stage is bacterials of which there are many! And they have such offal names like Stripoffcarcass, Escherickety colada (named after the Dutch artist and Carobbean rum drink), Histeria (named after the British physician Histeria who invented the antiseptic Histerine. Oh, yes, yes, what is it Dr. Hackney? Well, isn’t he a smarty-prance; he informs me that I’m wrong on all 3 counts. Well, you all know what I’m talking about and if you want to be predantic and get the exact names, you can always turn on your computers and go to Gargle and find out. What we’re trying to do here is look at the larger picture.
The vast majority of bacterials are beneficent and indeed are necessary to the survival of higher life forms on the planet. Just consider the guttural forms; without them your intestines would be in a constant uproar. Furthermore, these organisms play an absolutely crucial role in the decadence of dead matter. Imagine the unbelievable amounts of rotting material that we would have all around us if it weren’t for bacterials that carry out decadence on a large scale. This process of desoluteness is, of course, greatly augmented by a wide variety of funguys. Molds are critical in this process and larger forms like mushrooms can even break down wood. Unfortunately, there are forms of funguys which will attack humans and produce some pretty nasty and icky conditions. For example, Candida auris can prove fatal, has a multiple drug resistance, and can attack kidneys, liver, bones, spleen, and even the nervous system. My system would be nervous too around such an organism which is classified as a yeast, but you certainly don’t want to try baking with it.
Well, now, some of you will say that the effects of various ultra-micro critters may be monstrous, but you remind me that I promised you monsters and not just monstrous results. As we move up the phylogenital tree and encounter more complex creatures, there are some that are indeed fearsome simply in appearance.
So, consider that remarkable tardygrade with its incredible resistance to heat, cold, vacuum, radiation, chemicals that would quickly unquick (that is, lethalize) virtually any other organism. They are also know as “water bears” and some descriptions make them sound like they would be cute and warm and cuddly. Most of them are only about a half a millimeter in length, but imagine if you were only that size and encountered one of these with its weird mouth and curved claws. I certainly wouldn’t assume that it was friendly and certainly, not cuddly.
Even without food and water, these little bugagoos can have a life spam of up to 30 years.
Then, there are those really quite hideous solecisms of tapeworms with all those nasty hooks. Some quack (pardon me, physician) recently (Jan. 2017) found one in a man that was 6.2 feet long!–the tapeworm, that is. That of course, is not microscopic, but its scolecism has to be viewed with a microscope to fully appreciate its hideosity.
Nematodes, those seemingly begnign little wormlets have some very toothy jaws as well and are certainly not maws (or paws) that you would want to encounter if you were only a few millimeters in size.
A truly disgusticating group of organisms are to be found in the “spittle bugs”. We used to find them around the estate on the giniper berry bushes; there would be this horrible white froth on the needles and inside would be the groosesome, beadle-eyed creature with a needle-like snout for sap sucking.
Which reminds me that there are some wonderful little birds called sapsuckers of sipsakers or something like that.
Well, the spittle bugs are indeed rather fat, otiose, creepuscular creatures, but perhaps even worse are the parasitic barnacular versions of Jabba the Hutt. Their littoral name is Sacculina and they invade green crabs, take them over, and render them zomboidal. Here are 2 photos.–UGH!
As I have already suggested, few people like worms, except perhaps fishermen and worm retailers. However, there are those that are quite fascinating and some that are quite lovely, such as, the Christmas Tree Worms, or feather worms in general. However, there are 2 or 33 that are pretty ugly (isn’t that an Ox-and-Moron?). Some zoologists do, I admission, have a rather bizet sense of humor (as my mother used to say) and the worm I have in mind is named Aphrodite which comes from the Etheropian language Swathulu–Aphro, from Africa and ditty, from folk song–so this worm’s name means African folk song.–Oh, what is it now, Professor Howler?–Oh, Greek? Ah, the goddess of folk songs? No? The goddess of love?–Well, that really is a stretch as you’ll see when you get a goose and gander at a picture of this robustic annelid. It’s also know as a sea mouse. It can get up to 8 inches in lengthitude, 2 ½ inches in widthitude and their dorset side is covered with setae or spines whose color varies from red to green to blue depending upon the angle of light. These have a prismatic structure and are more efficient in transmitting light than any fibrous optic we have yet come up with. However, as they crawl along on the bottom, all sorts of detritus and sentiment settles on them and they look all dirty and grey, in fact, mouse-like.
However, sea mice are really quite harmless and quite respectable looking when you get all the algae and detritus scraped off of them.
Then at the other end of the sputum, there’s the sea wasp–quite nice to look at but, nonetheless, a true monster. It is a cuboid medusa only a few inches in diameter and yet possessed of a deadly venom and its sting can produce a violently painful death for any unfortunate swimmer unlucky enough to have an encounter with this horrible little beast. It is known to cognosensi, such as myself, as Chironex fleckeri.
Now, if we go back to the micro-world, we might encounter a fascinating wee Loch Nessie–Lacrymaria olor. Imagine that you are aquatic, 100 microns tall and that you encounter a ciliate which looks like an inverted pear with a bundle of fuzzy cilia at the fat end and appears at first to be about the same size that you are. However, you soon recognate that this creature was just dozing or digesticating. Suddenly, it wakens and the fuzzy cilia surround a mouth which begins to open and move toward you on a neck that extends 7 to 10 times body length and is thrashing around, coming closer and closer to where you are. I can confess to you that such an encounterment would, as the Yanks say, scare the zippity-do-dah out of me. This is a creature with a voracious appetite. With its serpentine neck, it can reach into every nick and granny–a mitey, micro-monster.
I’m sure that quite a few of you are beech combers (which sound exactly like beach combers, so you don’t know which I’m referencing–that is until, I start talking about mollusks) and that you like to collect shells especially in the Seychelles. However, you must be careful that your passion doesn’t turn into traumaturgy. There are some very attractive and highly prized shells called cone shells, not to be confused with pine cones or ice cream cones. This is the reason why we use Latinesque or Grekish designations to avoid such amphibiguities and so we should be talking about mollusks of the genius Conus rather than cone shells. So, with all of these genealogical niceties settled, we can proceed to discovering why these souped-up snail are so dangerous. The geography cone is perhaps the most dangerous and one of the most expensive for collectors to buy. It and a number of those species possess a toxin carried by a tiny calcareous “arrow” which can kill a human being.
Something one quickly learns in investigating Nature is that there are a lot of beauteous things that are dreadly. There is a sea urchin which has quite a handsome test called the Alfonso urchin.
And in its living form is quite beautiful and it looks as though it is covered with tiny flowers. These, however, are nasty little whingdingers called pedicallariae which have a potent toxin in them and can give you a very unpleasant experience which you can share with your grand- and not-so-grand children.
Too many people think that the only monsters are large things like sharks, rhinoceroses, grizzled bears, and dinner-plate sized tarantulas but, in truth, you’re likely at much greater risk from these smaller nasties with, of course, one exception, other human beings.
However, we are making great progress; we are finding ways through robotics and artificial intelligence to create beings who can take our place.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Published in the December 2020 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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