February 7, 2011

Save the Umbrellas

Investigating Biologist: Sharan Joyce

Biology: The Umbrella is classified as follows: Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Subphylum Vertebrata, Class Aves (birds), in the order of Chiroptera, which also includes bats and lawn flamingoes. Members of the Umbrella family generally are unipods (one-legged). Three major genuses have evolved: Bumbershootus (long, black); Parasolis (long, brightly colored); and Collapsicus (short, color varies). Each genus is further divided into species: curvatti, with a hooked foot, or knobsii, with a blunt or “clubfoot.”

Bumbershootus curvatii

Parasolis knobsii
Collapsicus knobsii

All members have an inflexible central vertebral column with fine-boned flexible wings that sprout just below the tiny head. The brain is surprisingly small for an avian. The adult’s average wingspan is three feet. Certain marine specimens, adapted to sunny beaches, have a span of up to six feet.

Characteristic Behaviors:
Like bats, umbrellas are frequently found hanging upside down in dark places. They are not exclusively nocturnal, however. Umbrellas generally shun sunny days (except Parasolis), and come out only on cloudy or rainy days. They live on nutrients derived from moisture in the air and are capable of hibernating for years between feedings if necessary. During their dormant season umbrellas may fold their wings tightly about their bodies, securing them with an “umbrellical cord” about their middles, or they may retreat into skin-tight cocoons. Umbrellas rarely breed in captivity; most are captured wild in their native breeding grounds (China) and exported.

Domesticated umbrellas, like domesticated turkeys, are generally flightless. Years of evolutionary degeneration, brought on by umbrellas’ growing dependence on humans, has weakend the umbrella’s skeleton to the degree that most individuals are unable to fly. Far from the ice age days when vast flocks of umbrellas could be seen circling the frozen tundra in search of thawing pools of water, the domesticated umbrella will not even expand its wings unless a human carries it to moisture. Occasionally on a windy day instincts will be aroused and an umbrella will attempt to take flight, but this is often a fatal experience resulting in skeletal inversion.

Umbrellas of the Bumbershootus and Collapsicus genus are most at home in the areas of year-round precipitation. In semi-arid climates, umbrellas tend to disappear after the end of the rainy season. Labeling and tracking of umbrellas has established that many of them try to migrate to the equatorial zone in search of more rain. Since they are flightless, many umbrellas take the bus; however they have small brains and no innate sense of direction, and often find themselves hopelessly lost unless some kind human adopts them.

Parasoli umbrellas can be found in both dry and wet climates. Marine umbrellas, and the domesticated poolside umbrella, seem to thrive on evaporated moisture from nearby bodies of water; perhaps they have made this evolutionary adaptation to enable them to flourish in sunny weather when there is little competition from the less-advaned, wet-weather umbrellas. In an unusual symbiotic relationship, Parasolis knobsii seems to feed on sweat exuded by humans on hot days, while sheltering the human from the sun.

The Problem:
Umbrellas have been exploited by humans. It is tempting to think of umbrellas as amiable, non-demanding pets, and many a child who cannot be trusted with a puppy is allowed to have an umbrella. However, umbrellas are a well-known hazard if allowed to roam, open and unrestricted, through the house. Also, they are not easy to housebreak. After a few puddles are left on the floor, they are usually shaken and relegated to the garage without water. This is inhumane. Pet umbrellas allowed outdoors are treated little better, as the master must guard against the ancient tendency to flight by keeping a firm grip on the leg when walking their pet.

Further, it is shameful that wild umbrellas are poached and killed for their feet (valued in making canes and walking sticks). Wild umbrellas may soon become as endangered as the sea otter as their skin is highly valued in making water-repellant tents. But the greatest travesty occurs in China, where umbrella hatcheries do a brisk business selling millions of fledgling Parasolis’s to the U.S., where they are considered a delicacy and served in cocktail drinks.