Wednesday 5 January 2011

The real question is why

OK, for a change, here’s a quick biology lesson. It’s about something that sounds as if it was a warrior in some ancient battle – Ixodes ricinus. But we know it better as a sheep tick. (By the way, the ricinus part of the name is a bit sinister. It relates to its other common name, the castor bean tick, and it’s from castor beans that you get that horrible poison, ricin, which, of course, features in my novel The Darkness.) Anyway, Ixy, as we’ll fondly call it, is a very common tick indeed. It can live for anything between two and six years.

It starts life as one of a couple of thousand eggs, hatches out as a larva (with its 1,999 brothers and sisters), and is ready to feed within a few days. So it climbs up a nearby plant, grass stem or whatever, and waits. Eventually (after maybe minutes, maybe days), it smells butyric acid, which tells it that a mammal is nearby and, as the animal brushes past the grass, Ixy leaps onto it and starts gorging itself on blood. This lasts for 2 or 3 days, during which it puts on weight and is eventually 10 to 20 times heavier than when it started.

When it’s had enough, it drops off and, after several months, it becomes a nymph. During those months, it doesn’t eat, mate, play football, watch movies or anything. It just gets older. So far, remember, it’s had just one meal. Not surprisingly, then, the following year it feels peckish again, climbs up another stalk and waits for a bigger animal to come along. The first snack was from something like a vole, this time it might choose a squirrel and the meal will last longer – 4 to 5 days – then it’s back to the undergrowth.

Finally, as adults, Ixy and his pals climb even higher and wait for larger animals from hares up to deer. The females then go to town, feasting for about a week and sucking down up to 5 ml of blood. Ixy, being a male, hangs around for longer but only takes small snacks because he’s busy mating with every Ixy female he can persuade into thinking it’s a good idea.

Then the female drops off, lays her eggs and dies. Ixy just drops off and dies. He doesn’t even get to see his kids. Remember, all this can take two years or six. Two or six years of hanging about, climbing up bits of grass, having three meals, mating, then dying. Now, apart from the mating bit, which I’m guessing doesn’t involve much foreplay, that doesn’t sound like a very interesting way to spend a life, so the question that always strikes me when I read of the wonders of nature and the processes of evolution is – Why?

And, of course, simply by asking that question, I’m back with my old mate Sisyphus and his rock. What on earth is the point of it all? Maybe evolution is making the hill smaller with each ‘advance’, but why? What’s it for? I don’t suppose Ixy is much of a thinker but if he is I bet he’s cursing God for making him a sheep tick when he could have been something with more apparent purpose like an Aardvark or a merchant banker. Imagine his thought processes as he dangles there on his bit of grass, feeling hungry and just waiting. He doesn’t even have the comfort expressed by Estragon in Waiting for Godot ‘We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’

Good fun, though, isn’t it?


  1. Ha ha, brilliant Bill and one of those feasts of information that leaves a human feeling a bit better about the world for, if nothing else, at least we are not ticks.

    I feel a bit guilty now for having burned many of the little buggers off various cats and dogs over the years - depriving them of the best bits of their little lives. Oh woe.

    But as to *why*... come, come, you know as well as the rest of us there is no Point - but we can't let a small detail like that detract us from pretending there is.

    Happy new year, btw.

  2. Burning them off was doing them a favour - what with them feeling all that existential angst and not having any hobbies to help them forget it.

    As for pretending there's a point, I think it's much more fun not to.

    And a HNY back, btw.

  3. I suffer from entonophobia ... Some pundit described 'politics' as:

    "The word 'politics'is derived from the word 'poly', meaning 'many', and the word 'ticks', meaning 'blood sucking parasites'."

    Rather enjoyable interpretation.

  4. I choose to believe the Ixys of the world have no idea about what [little] is in store for them during the course of their short lives and they exist on faith instead of three squares a day.

    They probably worship a God who preaches that if they suck the blood from ten different animals, they'll float to heaven and live in eternal peace among endless sheep's wool.

  5. That's the best definition I've heard of the word, Diane. (And I'm sorry to have triggered your entomophobia - but I don't promise not to do it again.)

    Linda, an eminently reasonable hypothesis on your part. If ever I encounter an Ixy looking for enlightenment, I'll direct him straight to you.

  6. You have my permission to do more of these kinda posts, Bill. V enjoyable.

    I think the ticks have the attention span of a goldfish and the memory of a hen. So when the next meal comes along they'll be like...did I just eat? When was breakfast? Did I have breakfast? Or was that lunch? Who stole the salt? All that mating and no foreplay is making me hungry again. I should just jump on this warm thing anyway, it might be another few hours before something else passes by.

    Oh my god. I think I found my inner tick!

  7. Agree with Michael, very enjoyable, even though I will probably dream of these creatures sucking on my blood tonight. Happy New year!

  8. For the ticks' sake, I hope you're right, Michael. Otherwise, if they're aware of their existential condition and they don't have things like Strictly Come Dancing and Simon Cowell to divert them from the notion of meaninglessness, their life must be hell.

    Scary, just don't go into the woods and you'll be OK. Happy, healthy and successful New Year.

  9. What a post. My problem is, because of your brilliant evocation of a creature that -as a former dog-owner- I'd previously seen as a curse, I'm now struggling with an ambivalence bordering on affection for Ixy. As you said in your previous post, there are consequences in bringing characters to life (and making them sound cute).

  10. Brilliant!
    This perfectly repulsive creature is now either a hero, or in Michael's rendition a teenage chick tick.

    His plight reminds me of the card I once received with a sloth on the front hanging from a tree lamenting, "Life is hard." And inside, " All I do is Breathe. Breathe. Breathe."

  11. Martie, I think you've come up with the topic of Bill's next blog post: characterizing a sloth.

  12. Ron, I keep telling you – sucking blood from others isn’t ‘cute’. Just because we sympathise with Ixy sharing a pointless existence with us and lament the fact that he’s got fewer diversions to take his mind off it, it doesn’t mean we have to condone his actions. In the words of Brian’s mother, ‘He’s a very naughty boy’.

    Martie, your sloth has articulated brilliantly the condition of all living things.

    And Linda, I think I’ve already characterized the sloth several times in my references to my own idleness.

  13. One thing Ixy has that we don't: predators. And what a protein kick they must get from an engorged female. So being in the food chain -rather than at the top- is maybe an existential comfort for our hero: OK, you die, but something else, like a pheasant, benefits. By the way, with one of their main enemies being turkeys, the chances are that many of us have become proxy vampires over the Christmas season.

    You think you're idle? I've made time to trawl around for this today -beat that.

  14. Ron, the guilt you feel for having burned all those relatives of Ixy is distorting your perception of him. For you, he seems to have become a tick Mother Teresa - willingly and selflessly sacrificing himself in order to afford an instant of pleasure to a pheasant (and thereby give his death some spurious semblance of meaning).

    And why is there a food chain anyway?

    Re idleness, I've been playing with my new Kindle all morning.