Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Moment of Science with Johnny Fleck

Scientists have confirmed that a second case of 'virgin birth' has occurred in a shark. In order to get a better understanding of this story, I enlisted the help of our chief science correspondent, Professor Johnny Fleck, in a new feature I like to call A Moment of Science. Dr. Fleck is a professor of marine biology at Virginia Tech.

The marine biology world has been thrown for a loop this week with the announcement of the so-called 'virgin birth' of a shark for only the second time in recorded history. Before we explore the ramifications of this event, an explanation: Asexual reproduction, or reproduction by a single being without a partner, is also known as parthenogenesis. It occurs in plants, some invertebrates, and in very few species of vertebrate. This is significant because scientists believe it may signal an evolutionary shift. At the very least, it is a rare find that must be studied.

The real question on the scientific community's mind, however, should be: will this lead to the creation of Shark Christmas?

Hear me out on this one. You're thinking, "Dr. Fleck, how in the hell could sharks start their own version of one of our holidays over something as weird as parthenogenesis?" Well, why don't you do your homework, Sally, because Human Christmas started the same way. The parthenogenesis of some cat I like to call the Virgin Mary. Now, we can only guess as to whether this particular incident will actually lead to Shark Christmas, but the fact remains that parthenogenesis definitely led the Christian holiday we now know as Human Christmas. That is a proven fact. We're not here to argue about that at all, because it's in the history books. Oh, and how about this for a coincidence: the shark that was reproduced asexually was quickly eaten by other sharks quickly after he was born. How weird is that, that the poor guy's already dead? Hell, you might even say that he died for our sins.

I can see it now: the shark community rallies around this miracle. It mystifies and inspires them. Before you know it, every shark will be wearing goofy Snowman sweaters and eating candy canes. They will swim from shark house to shark house to sing shark-carols and drink a warm mug of hot shark-cocoa, pausing only to warm themselves by the fire or devour a scuba diver. Shark families will exchange presents like fin warmers, fin caps, and fondue sets while they decorate a coral reef with ornaments.

We've all seen Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, and everyone can agree that sharks could do with a little less killing and a little more goodwill to their fellow shark. Shoot, think how amazing a production of a Shark Christmas Carol could be. We cast a Great White as that old curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge. Throw a dolphin in there as Bob Cratchitt. Get a sea otter to play Fozzy Bear. I love that play and I think it would be fantastic. One year I even played Scrooge at the Kennedy Center, which went well until I shit my pants halfway through the performance. To top it all off I watched Jaws that night when I got home. So, you know....there is another coincidence.

While this sounds all joyous and cheerful to us people, as a scientist I must caution that Shark Christmas presents a serious threat to humans. These bloodthirsty beasts can hardly satiate their desire for human flesh as it is, but can you imagine how cutthroat they would be on Black Friday? I don't want to speculate what a Hammerhead would do to get his dorsal fin on the last Tickle-Me-Elmo. My grandma, Roberta Fleck, makes it a yearly tradition to go out at 5AM every Black Friday to start her shopping. All I can think about is her getting torn to shreds over the perfume counter at Macy's.

Now, I do realize that this shark was not born in a manger. That's a fair argument. Let me explain why it's wrong: sharks don't have mangers! There is nothing within shark society that is the equivalent to a manger. If you think that a tiny little detail like this is going to derail my argument for Shark Christmas, you are just being ridiculous.

One problem the sharks might run into is finding one shark to sacrifice himself so he can be the Shark Santa. That's not an easy job, but I'm convinced one of them will do it if he's offered enough chum.

I'll be back next week with another edition of A Moment of Science in which I'll tackle the prospect of Manatee Hanukkah.

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