Study and Theory/
Purim

Azaria Alon

Purim in nature

It was we who invented the Purim holiday, with the help of Achashverosh and Haman the villain, but not the costumes.
The latter preceded us and human beings in general, and anyone watching nature with an exploring eye will find costumes beyond any human imagining. Scholars are still divided over the process that causes any creature to disguise itself, resemble someone else, disappear or stand out. When observing nature, we have to admit that even without knowing the actual mechanism performing the work, the visible results are highly persuasive.

 

From among the various, strange costumes, we shall note three groups:

First, the one most similar to our Purim is that of colors – for flamboyance, warning and intimidation. The creature decorates itself, adorns itself with feathers, a mane and colors, standing out in its surroundings, making an obvious effort at expression. In our language, this could sometimes be interpreted as follows: “It is I, the bully, the stabber, the poisonous one, whose flesh is unworthy of consumption, and I publicly declare: don’t mess with me, it would be a really bad idea.” Such is the black and white American skunk, and perhaps also the poisonous ocean sunfish of the Gulf of Eilat.  This sunfish floats calmly in the Red Sea waters, gently waving its large fins, engaging neither in fight nor flight. Woe to anyone pricked by its venomous quills, a thing apparently known to the sea’s marine creatures. We have no simple explanation for the bright colors of many other fish in that sea, so familiar to anyone who has ever dived in the Red Sea or visited the aquarium.

 

Flamboyant colors are very common among male birds, especially during mating season.

 

The simple explanation for this coquetry says that the male intends to conquer the female’s heart with his beauty; however, this claim is challenged: Who says she is ready to go after the good looks of such a fool, risking his life by standing out and arousing the attention of predators? Some say that this is the point: That it is not beauty he is demonstrating, rather heroism. The male peacock, spreading his colored train, both an obstacle in the thicket and a risk to his life, is actually telling the lady: If you want a hero of a father for your offspring, and for them to be heroes like him, look at me: I am risking myself and am not afraid!

 

The second group is that of those actually dressing up, those pretending to be someone else, for their own safety or utility. Our Ophrys is well-known, a kind of orchid whose flowers masquerade themselves as bees or similar insects. This is a true act of fraud: Male insects climb onto the flower, assuming that they can mate with it. The dismount in disappointment but not despair, and try their luck with another Ophrys flower. In the meantime the flower has given them horns: two clumps of pollen have been attached to their forehead, and they proceed to transfer it from flower to flower, pollinating it. This is a classic example of non-mutual partnership, when one benefits and the other gains nothing.

 

Once more we go down to the Red Sea, where there is a little fish called the cleanerfish since it enters the mouths of large predatory fish and cleans them of parasites. The larger fish know it and do not harm it, even when it wanders about their open jaw. Another very similar fish is the false cleanerfish, since it misleads the other fish. It does not clean them but they do not devour it, thinking it’s a cleaner fish.

 

Characteristic of this type of costume are the imaginary eyes on the wings of different butterflies such as the giant peacock moth, and on butterfly larvae such as that of the Levant hawk moth. Although these are drawings only, they appear to be evil, scary eyes.

 

The third group includes the creatures with camouflage colors. In children’s words they dress up as nothing, by blending and disappearing into their surroundings. Among them are prey who hide in order not to be preyed upon, and there are predators who thus conceal themselves from their prey. Venomous bottom-dwelling fish in the Red Sea, such as the stonefish and the scorpionfish disguise themselves as rocks lying on the sea floor.

 

Various desert creatures such as the common desert mantis and desert lizard dress up as gravel. Different insects disguise themselves as twigs or leaves. Famous for this is the chameleon, with its ability to change color and match its background.

We wish a Happy Purim to all of them and to ourselves.

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