Something different today - Nature magazine has a science fiction feature, and a while back I tried my hand with a submission. It didn't fly, so I'm putting it here instead.
I'll guarantee it exactly meets the quality you would expect from a first-ever attempt at science fiction writing. It starts after the jump.
“But there aren’t any amphibians at the bottom of the Pacific.”
Nadal’s protest didn’t stop the show producer. “Oh, it’s not the very bottom, it’s thirteen meters down. And Dr. Schiff will tell you that she knows your research will help us explain her dolphins.”
Schiff got him. She learned that he’d never flown suborbital, and getting a free ride enticed him, despite all its emissions. Schiff also promised drop-in shots of his newts and garter snakes. He determined he would fight for a proper balance in the documentary, knowing they would soon realize that herps are far more interesting than dolphins.
So there he floated, twelve meters below the Australian Pacific surface, uncomfortable still with the bubble-helmet scuba design. He tried to stay in camera range with both Schiff and the drill rig.
Action. “The Mediocrity Principle works as much with your dolphins as with my newts and snakes.”
Schiff floated closer, grey curls filling her helmet. “Here, a dolphin invented the use of marine sponges to dig out fish eighty years ago and passed on the technique to her descendants, and they’re spreading over Shark Bay.”
“But eighty years ago is today in evolutionary terms. So why now?”
“That’s why you’re here.” She turned as the camera tracked a dolphin, one without a sponge, probing ineffectually at the sand. “Dolphins have had large brains for millions of years, they can use tools, and the tool use is helping them survive. What are the odds that sponge use would first happen just recently?”
“The Mediocrity Principle says ‘not likely.’ We’re more likely to be witnessing a normal time for dolphins rather than something unique.”
“So, the dolphins must keep inventing and reinventing this tool use. Nadal, you found a similar cycle with the newts and snakes. What can you show me about them?”
“This.” Please still be alive, he thought, and pulled out a small, see-through case. Inside, a lizard-looking thing, brown on top and vibrant orange on bottom, swam disorientedly in its freshwater case. Amphibians weren’t found on the ocean floor - until today.
“This little guy from California contains enough poison to kill a person, but the tiny garter snakes there can eat it without a problem. Back home in British Columbia, our garter snakes would be poisoned instantly, except the same species of newts in BC aren’t poisonous. The original researchers who discovered this, they created a fantastic dataset of garter snakes winning evolutionary arms races with newts throughout western North America. Their conclusion about it was wrong though. They decided we lived in a special time where the race hadn’t started in BC, the race had been won by snakes in California, and it was in process elsewhere.”
Schiff took the encased newt. “You figured out that this wasn’t the first time it happened. The arms race is a cycle.”
“Newts evolve poison, snakes evolve even faster to resist it. Newts like this one max out at a certain level that the snakes evolve to overcome, but the story isn’t over. From this stage, newts lose their now-useless poison, snakes then lose their now-useless poison resistance, and the cycle restarts.”
He drifted closer to the drill and the exposed core segment they’d set up, then turned to Schiff. “And you figured something similar resets the clock for dolphins and sponges.”
“The cores proved it, halfway. These markers,” she pointed in turn, “show cycles over time of increasing sponge DNA in sediment, stable levels, gradual decrease, then nothing, and then it starts again.”
“So you found your cycle, but not the cause.”
“It took all these years of observing the dolphins, and the sponges, for me to figure out what’s happening.”
Nadal listened to Schiff recording a voiceover for the planned montage: dolphins using sponges; dolphins pulling many sponges from the coral reefs; a dolphin pulling up an isolated sponge; dolphins searching for sponges and not finding them. “Using sponges to help them fish is their technology, but they collapsed the resource. Fishing with sponges works well, but they eventually use them all and wipe them out. The knowledge for using sponges is lost, the sponges come back, and then some smart dolphin reinvents their version of the wheel.”
Nadal still marveled at the story. “It’s like the newts and snakes – not a one-time race but an ecological cycle. We’re seeing just an ordinary, mediocre time.”
“It's fascinating, even if it’s also sad that dolphins’ tool use will never build up to something more sophisticated. It will just go away again.”
That ended the day’s shot, with more work to happen later. The crew removed the drill, noticing only afterwards that a hand-wrench had been left below. They conscientiously planned to retrieve it but they never in fact went back, or even do any more work on the documentary itself. The brewing, global environmental-economic crisis killed their funding that very day.
Instead, back below on the ocean floor, a marine worm crawled past the hand-wrench and into the borehole. Further down, it found a crack in the compressed, muddy sand that let it keep going. Meters further in the silt, after passing through eons of deposition, it wriggled around yet another wrench – or rather, a long-fossilized cast of a wrench.
Going further, the worm started its own cycle.
Hanifin, C.T., Brodie, E.D., Brodie, E.D. (2008). Phenotypic Mismatches Reveal Escape from Arms-Race Coevolution. PLoS Biology, 6(3), e60. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060060
Janet Mann, Brooke L. Sargeant, Jana J. Watson-Capps, Quincy A. Gibson, Michael R. Heithaus, Richard C. Connor, Eric Patterson (2008). Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges? PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003868