Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Origin of Flight (Teaser)

On the advice of my professor, I am posting only a teaser to this piece with the intent of doing a longer (cleaner) draft to submit for publication. Enjoy! 
The flying squirrel does not actually fly, thank god.
The flying squirrel, like the flying fish, flying snake or flying squid (yes, its real), actually glides. While gliding has evolved on several occasions, flight has evolved only four times in the insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats.  In the air, animals move faster, concur more ground, avoid predators and easily traverse obstacles like wide rivers and steep mountain ridges. Because there are so many different needs for flight, several types of aerial locomotion have evolved.
On a Monday night in early February,  I munch on free cookies and press the tip of my pen too hard into my flimsy notebook.  I’m excited. Presentations from international dinosaur experts in this medium-sized Wisconsin town occur rarely,  one from an expert in the origins of avian flight might be a sole instance.  At Science Night at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, people in a darkened auditorium listen intently for an explanation for how dinosaurs took to the sky.
Not all beasts in the sky have adapted to glide like the squirrel or fly like the bird. Some have learned to let the environment take control. Externally powered aerial locomotion occurs when the animal gives the power back to the conditions -  usually the wind.
Some creatures fly by ballooning,  such as spiders who release webs into the sky to be grabbed by the breeze and carried away.  Tiny creatures trust the winds to carry them across the oceans. This is largely how volcanic islands become lush, diverse environments.
An animal with a large wingspan relies on soaring. Adapted to find the thermals or the wave of air off a slope or a ridge, or the convergence - the place where two air masses meet - and to ride the wind for miles.
In my second year of grad school, emboldened by my new-found calling, I call in sick to work and go to dinosaur camp. I walk through the beautiful city zoo with an eccentric scientist in a pith helmet and scratch notes in my tiny notebook, like a real journalist. The first stop on the zoo tour is the bird house. Looking at the scaly legs and firm crested brow of New Zealand’s native Cassowary for long enough, and the dinosaur from which it evolved begins to emerge. It’s easy to see how dinosaurs may have moved like birds, had feet and claws like birds, maybe made sounds like birds. It is my dream to write about dinosaurs. I’m inspired; riding the energy of this environment.  I write my best essay, and believe for a little while that I really am a writer.
To be continued...