|Hot Rod Serengeti
March 10th, 2009 at
The Hot Rod Serengeti:
The afternoon is growing late, and the heat of the day of is starting to wane. I'm looking over the landscape, through the lens of my camera, from the vantage point atop my truck. The grassy plain an amber expanse before me, speckled with bits of green, waving slightly in the breeze. This is play time on the Hot Rod Serengeti, when the nocturnal predators are just coming fully awake, the diurnal relaxing from a good day's work, and the crepuscular gearing up for activity. The first to catch my eye are the young and adolescent elephants.
Young elephants roll clumsily, tentatively keeping their wheels in the direction of travel or turning too quickly or out of sink; they frequently skid sideways and land on their backs; rarely do they have the speed to hurt themselves. The sound of a youngster rolling is distinctive, as it is for all immature animals on the Hot Rod Serengeti, because the failure of their four wheels to sync properly creates a disharmonious sound. Thus young animals tend to move slowly enough to be quiet when the adults aren't nearby. Today they're moving in a confusion of tumbling, bumbling circles and figure eights.
The adolescent elephants are a different story: their wheels sounding in perfectly harmony, and loudly from the stress of acceleration or high speed. Schematically like modified flagellum, each wheel powered by a complex system of sliding muscle fibers, contracting in time as neurons, coordinated by the brain, trigger enzyme strategic enzyme floods; millions of tiny fingers curling up against each other and sliding the circular axle muscles around and around inside the housing muscles. At slow, steady speed, these contractions work smoothly and do not jar the animal's shoulders and hips. The result is quiet locomotion, and the muscles have time to shed the enzymes and then contract again, allowing for sustained movement. But the adolescents are Hot-Rodding around the herd; the nerves trigger the enzyme dumps into patterns that create an audible jolt as the muscles contract and moves the animal with force. The tone depends on the animal, but the pattern is the same. For elephants, it begins as a low plub plub plub and winds up to a high slappityslappityslappity. Now the muscles don't have time to dump the enzymes, so the animal engages a next sent of muscle fibers with longer "fingers," and the pattern repeats, though starting at a higher register. Big cats have the same pattern, but it sounds like a purr; hyenas, a strangely tuned squelch is the underlying note; gazelle, a snap.
My driver points off to my left, and I turn my lens to spy a mother cheetah stalking a herd of gazelle. Her wheels are "diameter-retracted" or "DR" (pronounced "dee-arr"), the common but not technical terms, so that I can see every irregularity in the ground as her shoulders and hips jolt over every bump. Ahead of her, near the edge of the herd is an adolescent gazelle, which I guess to be her target. I line up the shot, and by a pure stroke of luck, just as I get them into view, she charges. Keeping her wheels DR for acceleration, she starts them spinning and shoots out of the long grass into the open, her first cycle run up to high-pitched screaming purr in two seconds. She's already moving at twenty or thirty miles per hour when her second cycle engages and she DIs her wheels to smooth out her travel. A second and a half in to the second cycle comes the cheetah's "enzyme purge" as she floods her second-cycle muscles and her body roars as the shock-absorbing tendons eat up the abuse the forces of acceleration. This lasts but one second; her acceleration is astonishing, and when that cycle's muscles give up in fatigue, she engages the third cycle at a cool 75 miles per hour.
In the mean time, the gazelle herd has bolted and split. The adolescent is rolling away from her at frantic, but insufficient speed. Instinctively, he varies his path slightly moment to moment, but maintains generally straight ahead until she's within striking range. Then his brain goes in to what I call "coin-flip mode": that evolutionary survival strategy of turning left or right at random, again and again and again. His muscles are creating a high snapping whine, while the cheetah, having slowed to his 45 mile-per-hour pace, is using a mix of her third- and first-cycle muscles, the latter having sloughed off their enzymes, to create a two-part harmony most pleasing to the human ear. And not only humans: except for the fleeing gazelles, all the animals within sight have stopped cold and are now watching the drama unfold.
She is right on him as he tries to lose her: Turn! Turn! Turn! Turn! He never travels in one direction for more than a half-second; his only hope is for her to make the wrong turn and not have the energy to catch up with him again. It is a long, frantic chase — the pace is like a sustained, fast Olympic ping-pong volley. Turn! Turn! Turn! Wrong! On his last left, she went right! She attempts to recover but spins backwards! The trumpeting of elephants and roars of lions roll across the land as they appreciate the thrill, whatever emotions they may harbor in their animal brains. But it's not over! I look back and she has engaged her reverse muscles, holding her direction, though veering left, her body making a screeching whine for the speed she's at. Dangerous move, but the panicked gazelle has turned right! They're rolling parallel, five feet apart. The gazelle turns left and the cheetah pulls a three-quarter Rockford turn and is now on the gazelle's rear bumper!
The cheetah is practically touching the gazelle. They are both exhausted, but she doesn't give up. She anticipates his next turn, cut it early, and rams into one of his rear wheels, knocking him off balance and the wheel out from under him. As he skids sideways and tumbles, she does a doughnut, kicking dirt into the air as she decelerates and circles the gazelle until she can get her mouth on his throat and strangle him in her death grip.
She is exhausted. She is breathing heavily, frantically; panicked, she's eying the world around her like a madman. Soon I understand why she's so spooked: a cackle of hyenas is approaching. They're going to take her kill.
Anyplace else, she would have lost her kill, but not on the Hot Rod Serengeti. Here you'll find that Drive To Win is a survival trait. Before she is accosted, two adult male lions show their appreciation by scattering the hyenas. The lions are outnumbered, at first, but three adolescent elephants roar into the fray, and it is clear the young mother will be feeding her cubs tonight. The sun is beginning to set as begins hauling the kill back to her family.