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Animal Behavior in Humans: A Study in Evolutionary Biology


Ruby Marshall


The armadillidiidae—commonly known as the rolly polly—is the Latin name for the breed of woodlouse, the only land dwelling relative of crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters. This is how my presentation on animal behavior in the common woodlouse began. For the most part—there was a spelling error in the final PowerPoint slideshow—it was completely factual. It was the last true statement in the entire presentation, but my group soldiered on, sweaty with guilt, as we lied point blank to our AP Biology teacher. We finished the presentation; we got an A. 


We had designed our experiment to explore whether or not the behavior of woodlice follows the patterns of kinesis or taxis animal behavior. Kinesis behavior reflected undirected movement or change; taxis behavior showed full body reflex to stimuli. Lazy, engorged on the sweet heady days of late May in Northern California, we spend the time meant to prepare for the experiment making each other laugh, sucking the sour sugar off gummy candy, ignoring our teacher’s demands for us to be quiet. We—my best friend and I, and another set of perfect matches (nerdy sophomore boys who are impressed by us and want to impress us)—are buoyed by our perfect synchrony, our ability to do nothing in class and float by breezily. 


Our laziness is compounded by the fact that we know, step by step, what the results of our experiment will be. Woodlice hate the light—so they will move, in perfect taxis, towards the light. Woodlice love moisture—they will react negatively to the dry area provided and escape towards our wet paper towel. We are so confident in ourselves and in the woodlice I collected from my backyard that there is almost no point to the entire exercise. We lick chocolate off our fingers and watch the other groups work. 


We keep our woodlice in a Tupperware container which I had poked holes through, wielding opened scissors at extreme risk to myself and my family—and probably the woodlice, though nobody really cared. They’re disgusting creatures, and we are disgusted by them as they are flipped upwards, wiggling desperately and writhing, scared out of their minds. We pat our arms happily, touch our lower backs, confident in our anatomy, our autonomy. No giant creature could flip us backwards, watch us wiggle. We are powerful in our brains, advanced past silly behavioral studies, powerful in our bodies. 


The experiment goes accordingly, until it doesn’t. The woodlice, possessed by some kinetic draw, scurry past the dark chamber into the light, arranging themselves randomly, despite our best hypotheses. This is not good, because it will require a dreaded amount of scientific integrity, and a need to change our prewritten conclusion. For a moment, we are nervous and annoyed, watching the idiotic bugs twitch in their Petri dishes. Then we are distracted. One of the lice is pregnant, and her bulging, bulbous stomach is horrifying and hilarious, distorted and sad. Somebody forgets to write down our data. 


The weekend passes joyfully, school having dwindled down to a digestible four remaining days. We finish the final phase of the experiment; we scribble our conclusion and error analysis; we add in fun designs to the slideshow. We are feeling very good as we lean back dangerously in the computer lab’s broken chairs, proudly observing our Google Spreadsheets graph. Ray, removing his hand from his pimply face and tracing a yellow bar on screen, remarks casually, “Didn’t all of the bugs go to the light?” 


We scurry like woodlice. We curl up, crustacean shells glossy black and protective, as the collective stomach of our group drops and then ascends to our throats: we forgot about our misstep, and in our accidental forgery we have become scientific criminals. Paloma looks around at us, big eyes frantic, and then misquotes the movie The Fugitive, the one with Harrison Ford and the German guy: “We doctored the research.”


That we had. We were presenting in about 24 hours, on the final day of the class, in the two hour period allotted for final exams and projects. Our project was done, impeccable, guaranteed an A from our annoyed but doting teacher, and almost every bit of it was based on a lie - believed wholeheartedly by the liars, but an untruth, a misrepresentation, a lie all the same. We had falsified the research. (That’s the actual quote screamed by Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, though the misquote is somewhat ironic in the circumstances.) 


What does one do when the cliff approaches? We chose to die like lemmings. (Lemmings actually do not commit mass suicide, despite the popularized Kool-Aid drinking mentality. Any cliff diving is actually a side effect of migration that occurs when the fluctuating population exhausts resources in a given area—one could call this taxis behavior.) In any case, we moved in lateral direction, faced with the stimulus of failing biology. We plunged forward, unthinking, desperate to remove ourselves from danger. 


We presented; passed; smiled at each other, relieved. 


In the end, I alone looked up what had occurred, the part of me that loves science frustrated at my corporeal form for betraying principles to maintain homeostasis. We had predicted almost everything wrong, and the things we got right were arrived at from the wrong direction. Woodlice display klinokinesis movement. Klinokinesis is uncountable, a form of kinesis in which frequency of movement is proportional to stimulus intensity. Transfer, then, in our compartments, was only testing the speed of random movements rather than the intent behind them. 


Capacity for unlearned behavior and for stereotyped responses is genetically determined. So then: what was our group’s behavior? Was it an adopted and cultural response, some hybrid of “no snitching” and GPA obsession? Or was it a more natural response, a movement that was born out of a reaction to stress and to fear, which our bodies naturally want to relieve? I want to continue my species, I want to pass down my genetic code: I am going to lie about my biology final. 


We are advanced creatures. Our nervous systems allow us the luxury of choice and of organized response. We are secure in our bodies and in our self image: the most technologically able and intellectually capable. But we are still emotional, in the sense that we want to feel good. So perhaps we are a little less capable than we are inclined to believe. We probably twitch too. 

Ruby Marshall is an aspiring biologist, which explains her boring subject matter. A proficient liar, she also enjoys storytelling, creative writing, reading, and Watermelon Sour Patch (best when stolen).

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