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>> Thursday, July 31, 2008

The bestest animal in the whole wide world is the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew. Why?

Because the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew subsists on what is basically an alcoholic diet. They apparently consume nothing but fermented nectar from a palm. Nomnomnom. And apparently they're sober enough to find their way home anyway. I also have to assume there are tons of these things running (or staggering) around Malaysia, since there can't be any doubt that even the ugliest Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews can get laid, though their partners probably regret it in the morning.

There are some vapors in the MSNBC piece about how the alcohol tolerance of Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews may relate to alcohol tolerance in humans, since Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews (gosh, I love typing that!) are presumed to share a common ancestor with primates. It's a funny idea that probably has some readers saying "wow," but it strikes me as a bit insubstantial unless you have some other data points besides Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews and homo sapiens, two very distant cousins--say, for instance, widespread alcohol tolerance among many primates and many tree shrews, suggesting that the trait was present before the lines split. This does, perhaps, suggest a possible experiment in which we ply chimpanzees with mojitos until they volunteer to perform at karaoke night, but one suspects animal rights activists may protest it's cruel to expose chimps to "Afternoon Delight." The song, I mean, and not the practice. Whatever. The bigger risk might be to the researchers: don't you think chimpanzees are probably surly drunks? I do. I think they tend to have a somewhat dour look even when they haven't tipped back a few, or maybe that's because I've only seen them in cages or wearing diapers in movies or in photographs with Michael Jackson.

The fermented brew--the food source for the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew--is described as being like beer (perhaps because it's produced through the action of yeast colonies living with the flowers), but it strikes me that fermented nectar might be more like mead, maybe? Perhaps not. What's more interesting than a tenuous link between Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews and humans through some inebriated common ancestor is the question of this ecological relationship between Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew, the bertam palm, and the "complex yeast community" that lives with the flower; are we simply talking about the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew and yeast colonies finding a niche created by the bertam palm's microenvironment, or have these three evolved together to some degree, perhaps even symbiotically? Of course the MSNBC article doesn't even go there.

(Because, see, science is only interesting to the public if human beings are involved. Distant black holes colliding--only significant if one of them has a trillion-to-one chance of hosing Earth with lethal gamma rays in the process. Dinosaurs wiped out by an ancient asteroidal impact--yes, yes, but will we all die next year from an identical event? Antarctic microbes, you say--do they cause autism? And why should I care about a Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew unless it shares a common ancestor with W.C. Fields? Narcissists, we are.)

Anyway, raise a glass to the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew--he'd raise a flower to you.

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(Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew!)



5 comments:

Nathan Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 6:49:00 AM EDT  

science is only interesting to the public if human beings getting to drink more alcohol are involved.

Hope you don't mind the slight clarification.

Janiece Murphy Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 9:22:00 AM EDT  

Cheers, Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew!

Hmm...beer...meade...whatever...

Matt Warnock Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 11:24:00 AM EDT  

My dad swears he saw a special on PBS years ago that filmed animals in Africa eating fermented fruit off the ground and the elephants at least were staggering around from it (and he's never seen it since). Sounds like they should take a few tips from the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew.

Random Michelle K Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 6:48:00 PM EDT  

1) Elephants do get drunk occasionally, and when they do they're a hazard and a menace. (Do you want something that large stumbling around near your house?)

2) What I thought interesting about the shrews was that they could metabolize alcohol, and so such a process could be extrapolated to humans, or even a shot or medication developed to allow you to quickly sober up.

Didn't necessarily see it as a gene that could be turned on or off, only as the mythical pills in science fiction that sober you up right quick.

Anonymous,  Monday, March 9, 2009 at 4:43:00 AM EDT  

Few points:
-nectar from the bertam palm is a staple of the pentailed treeshrews diet, they have never been reported to appear drunk
-pentailed treeshrews being living surrogates to the ancestors of present day treeshrews, gliding mammals, and primates is quite interesting. There is evidence supporting this claim.
excelent reading on the subject are found in:

Bloch JI, Silcox MT, Boyer DM, Sargis EJ (2007) New Paleocene skeletons and the
relationship of plesiadapiforms to crown-clade primates. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA
104:1159–1164.

and

Janecka JE, et al. (2007) Molecular and genomic data indentify the closest living
relative of primates. Science 318:792–794.

both of which are cited in the original paper (link below)

Nevertheless, what you typed was an abstract (your post) of an abstract (msnbc article) of an abstract (from the journal) of a study published in a journal article titled "Chronic intake of fermented floral nectar
by wild treeshrews"
here's a link to the original article, enjoy :)
http://www.pnas.org/content/105/30/10426.full.pdf+html

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