Doing the wild thing

I miss Marlin Perkins and his softly instructional nature shows. But Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the like have become as endangered as the Rameshwaram Parachute Spider or the Borneo pygmy elephant. Long gone is a serene, omniscient host like Perkins, cozily narrating the love moves of tawny African lions.

Despite the coital element, such Zen-like public-television offerings just couldn’t withstand cable television’s rampant breeding of animal-adventure docudramas. Animal Planet and The National Geographic Channel have transformed hyperactive hosts into international stars, including the late but notorious Steve Irwin of Crocodile Hunter fame.

More recently, Oprah-approved über-explorer Jeff Corwin has shown off his own expert handling of various forms of wildlife. And the equally vilified and deified “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan also belongs on the list, although even his most troublesome subjects are usually at least partly domesticated. Sometimes the animals themselves are the scene-stealers. The hit British series Meerkat Manor follows several generations of a whole clan of Kalahari Desert marsupials. (One reviewer likened the squabbling kin to the warring Tudor queens.)

All of these shows can be guiltily entertaining. But whether it belongs to man or beast, such cult-of-personality pomp divests nature shows of all their, well, naturalness. I was reminded of this on a fall trip to the Western North Carolina Nature Center, where two turtles were putting on their own show for visitors, mating as sweetly and slowly as only two turtles on a Sunday afternoon could do.

Most other regional critters copulate far from the public eye—and in some marvelously unusual ways, says Gary Peeples, public-affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Asheville office. He recently shared some of his subjects’ more interesting romantic tactics. “The sicklefin redhorse, a fish species found only in the Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River basins of Western North Carolina and north Georgia, spawns in a trio,” says Peeples, who also hosts WNCW radio’s nature interlude, The Southern Appalachian Creature Feature.

The sicklefin ménage à trois—involving two males and a female—happens more for efficiency’s sake than for fun, according to a 2006 article by Becky Johnson in the Smoky Mountain News: The endangered fish, she writes, “take no chances that the eggs aren’t fertilized by the time they’re through.”

Local suckerfish, minnows and mussels get even more creative, Peeples adds. “Certain species develop breeding tubercles on their head that they use to stimulate the female into spawning,” he says. Male freshwater mussels, on the other hand, don’t bother too much with foreplay: “They release sperm balls into the water to be carried along [in the current] until, hopefully, a female mussel sucks them in and fertilizes her eggs with them,” Peeples explains.

Also spawning solo is the female Indiana bat. She and her sister bats mate in the usual mammalian fashion during the autumn months—“males [swarm] for weeks at the entrance of the cave,” says Asheville-based Wildlife Service biologist Bob Currie. Instead of immediately becoming pregnant, however, the female stores the sperm inside her body during winter hibernation. When spring comes, all the she-bats essentially self-inseminate, then form maternity colonies in new caves to gestate and give birth.

“The Indiana bats are at the edge of their range here,” explains Currie, who’s as soft-spoken as any old-school nature-show host. He says they mostly hang around in—where else—Bat Cave in Henderson County. The creatures have also been spotted in a few abandoned Haywood County mines. In fact, heavy mining drove the bats from their historical Midwestern habitats, which included their namesake state and parts of Kentucky. What Currie describes as “intentional vandalism” of their colonies by humans also contributed to the species’ current fragility.

But people don’t fear bats the way they used to, he notes, crediting this gradual enlightenment to years of educational efforts by the Fish & Wildlife Service and other organizations. Let’s hope they keep spreading the love.

Gary Peeples’ “Southern Appalachian Creature Feature” airs on WNCW-FM Mondays at 7:19 a.m. It’s also available as a podcast. Subscribe through iTunes or via the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Web site at www.fws.gov/asheville/htmls/generalinfo/podcasts.html.

And don’t miss the N.C. Arboretum’s traveling exhibit, “Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats,” which is on display through Sunday, May 10. For more information, call 665-2492 or visit the Web site (www.ncarboretum.org).

[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.]

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