Learn about a deceptively inconspicuous creature, the Patagonian Mara, in Simon Barnes’s latest piece for the Barnes’s Bestiary blog series.
A natural response. One you normally experience when you look at something completely different to anything else: a creature shockingly bizarre, utterly remote from your experience, a one-off maverick genius of survival. Like panda, pangolin and platypus – and that’s just some of the Ps.
But perhaps the real wow-beasts are those that look just like we would expect. So ordinary you barely raise an eyebrow. When you look out at the scrubby open plains of Patagonia, you expect to see mammals thriving and grazing in the open landscape.
What a beast needs to keep safe in such a place is good vision and a fast take-off. So when you see a small gathering of creatures like small deer – or perhaps large hares – you are hardly going to feel surprised. You might not even say wow.
So stand there a moment. They’ll keep the sharpest of sharp eyes on you. Two steps closer and they’re gone: a series of powerful bounds and they’ve vanished. I see hares and Chinese Water Deer doing this every day, at home in Norfolk.
But the Patagonian Mara is neither hare nor deer. It’s a rodent. To be fanciful, it’s a rat who decided to be a deer.
Rats and mice evolved for confined spaces, for a sneaking, hidden existence. Maras took a different turn and evolved for the open, where speed is essential. They started at a radically different evolutionary point from either hares or deer, but they came up with a shared solution to a shared problem: great eyes, long legs and a nought-to-sixty – well, top speed is 45 kph – that leaves most predators at the traffic lights. Hares, deer, maras; they all look the same, they’re all completely different.
It’s called convergent evolution; it’s why auks in the northern hemisphere are quite a lot like unrelated penguins of the south and it’s why there are rats galloping about like deer. Rat-relatives, anyway.
Or to put that another way – wow.