When I was in third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Shank, kept a hermit crab in a small fishbowl on the window ledge. The bowl had a bunch of extra shells in it and the hermit crab was shy so it wasn't until about six weeks into the school year that anyone noticed there was actually a living creature in the bowl. There may have been some initial squealing from some of the kids sitting closest to the window when the hermit crab showed himself for the first time and began scrabbling among stones and shells in his glass home.
It was the first time most of us had seen or even heard of a hermit crab. We found the thing fascinating and when she told us that we would each be assigned to take it home for a weekend, there was a stampede of eager volunteers pushing to be the first to write their name on the list.
Mrs. Shank introduced us to another wonder of the natural world--a plant that shrunk from the slightest touch, its leaves folding up tightly when brushed or bumped. I've never forgotten the plant, though if I ever knew its name, I've long since forgotten that.
In fact, I've always wondered what that plant was called and tried over the years to find it, with no success until accidentally, when I was barely paying attention at all, I was flipping through one of those catalogs for a school fundraiser and I stumbled over a kit to grow something called a "sensitive plant."
I ordered it immediately and when it came, it sat on a stand in my dining room for about six months before I finally got around to planting it. There were about a dozen seeds in the kit, only one of which sprouted. My plant is still a baby, but it is sensitive already and I am as excited about this plant at 47 years old as I was at eight. I make everyone touch it to watch the leaves fold in on themselves.
From what I've read since my kit arrived, scientists are not completely sure what advantages this sensitivity gives the plant but speculate that the rapid movement of the plant may startle away animals, including insects, looking to make a meal of it.
The way the plant shrinks at a touch--or even a too-rough accidental bump of its plastic pot--has inspired a few discussions around our house about whether the plant can "feel" in any recognizable sense of the word, or worse yet, "think." I'm not sure where I stand on that, but the possibility does make me feel a little bad about how much I enjoy poking the little bugger.
E is for Evolution
PS--For those unfamiliar with the plant, this video shows one responding to various stimuli. My own plant is still teeny-tiny and is not really camera-ready. Plus it was closed up for the night when I began working on this post.
*For those too young to get the slightly sideways reference in the title:
The Skin of Our Teeth
23 hours ago