Between science and fairy tales    

Sabi Sand | December 2020

For those of you who grew up having read Lewis Carrol’s, “Through the Looking Glass – and What Alice Found There” would have met one of the characters called the Red Queen.

The meaning of the term Hypothesis is (in a simple term) an idea that one can test through experimentation, or a guess rather than a known theory. How the two paragraphs can be used in the same statement, and in Nature for that matter, I will try and explain in a simple manner. The theory was first put forward by a professor Van Valen, and proposed the co-evolution of species in order to survive because of the evolution of a co-existing competing species. This is also sometimes referred to as the intra species battle for survival.

Without boring you with too much science, as promised, I will give an example of this hypothesis between one of the most iconic animals in Africa, the giraffe, and a type of thorn tree. These two species have evolved on a linear timeline in an attempt to outdo each other for survival. If we look back on the evolutionary time scale, we would find the predecessor of the modern giraffe feeding on the predecessor of the thorn tree. The tree, realizing it was constantly under attack started modifying some of its leaves into thorns. To counter this, the giraffe developed a tough leathery mouth.

The trees tried to outdo the giraffe again by growing taller in an attempt to be out of reach of the (most probably shorter-necked) giraffe. As we all know giraffes have extremely long necks to reach the tall branches of adult thorn trees. This battle will continue for many thousands of years as these two species try to outfox each other. This was just a simple explanation, but fascinating to witness out in the bush and is something to think of.

This brings me to how the Red Queen falls into all of this, with the words she told Alice. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. The interpretation was that a species had to adapt, or run, in order to stay in the same place to survive.

I hope that this inspires you to look at giraffes and thorn trees more carefully the next time you see them, but also to go and read the wonderful novel that is, “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There”.

Male giraffe basking the in late evening light, photographed by Damin Dallas.