Science

The Story of Bones

Originally published in Meatpaper, Issue 16

Could I interest you in a skeleton?

Perhaps you are thinking, being a small, soft-bodied creature, that being blobbish is not so bad. What’s wrong with having the shape and constitution of a piece of cooked spaghetti?

Nothing. Honest. We don’t want to make you feel bad about yourself. But here, in the warm seas of the Cambrian, major lifestyle shifts are happening around you.

You must realize that the ice age is over. You’re floating in the warm seas of the Cambrian era now. And in case you hadn’t noticed, photosynthetic algae has taken over the world, and is farting oxygen everywhere. No matter how you feel about it, you must admit: Now the water feels weird, and you feel weird too – like you want to do stuff, even when you don’t need to.

Maybe you would like to move around more – perhaps crawl up on to the desert wasteland that is the Cambrian landscape, and take a look around? No one lives there yet. It’s all desert. It could be yours.

Maybe you would like to learn how to tap dance. If you had a skeleton, you could do that.

Perhaps we could interest you in not being eaten. Have you been paying attention? The world is increasingly full of things that could eat you.

We know what you are thinking. You are thinking “I’ll just become poisonous. I will be light and poison, and I will float upon the waves like a jellyfish.”

Well, not everyone is going to think about whether you are poisonous or not before they try to eat you. A skeleton won’t stop them, but it will slow them down. The geologist Geerat Vermeji will one day take note of the signs of skeletal injury and survival in the Cambrian fossil record and take this as a sign that the skeleton is – essentially – a tool in an arms race.

Having the right armor for an arms race is to be desired. But we realize that mineralizing – making calcium or silica a part of you, instead of leaving it out there in the world –  is a strange concept to get used to. It’s like buying a suitcase that you can never set down again.

But a skeleton doesn’t have to be fancy. Who needs a spine, for example? Those will be the last to evolve anyway, so you couldn’t have one now even if you wanted one. Interweave your blobbishness with calcium carbonate or silica the way that sponges do. That’s a nice, starter skeleton.

In the Cenozoic, some paleontologists will say that the Eicardian was a time of secret skeletons – ones that didn’t make it to fossilization.  The paleontologist Dolf Seilacher suggests creatures with a “quilted pneumatic superstructure,” which sounds very nice. Maybe you wouldn’t like a skeleton at all, if you had that.

If you don’t care about becoming especially large, an exoskeleton is very nice, and highly recommended. If you go the route of becoming an arthropod, be aware that someday you will have to shrink. The algae will lose mojo and recede. It will take a lot of oxygen with it.

If you make it through to the Cenozoic, that era with mammals and helicopters and subways the biggest you’ll get is if you decide to be the coconut crab (Birgus lantro) – about sixteen inches from stem to stern. Your life will not be bad – you’ll spend your time eating fruit and stealing shiny things from other residents of the Indo-Pacific islands. You will miss being larger, but only a little.

But perhaps stealing shiny things doesn’t excite you. Perhaps you are one of those small, squishy creatures that is interested in exploring eating other small, squishy things. You don’t need to grow a whole skeleton. Just grow enough for biting. You can just be teeth, and cartilage. This is a valid lifestyle choice.

You will have to stay in the ocean, but that won’t be so bad. If you become a colossal squid you can grow to as much as 46 feet long, and you won’t even have to pull calcium out of the world to make yourself teeth – just a beak made of chitin will be fine. You’ll be so rare that it will be nearly impossible to find you, but maybe you like that sort of thing.

We will tell you the skeletons are already coming, though. They are pouring into the fossil record like a busload of conventioneers. Your time, this general hot mess of the Cambrian, will be the geological era that will go on to bother evolutionary biologists like Charles Darwin.

This is largely because of these skeletons – it will all seem too wild and too sudden to fit the theory of natural selection as a slowly unfolding decision tree – these bones that grow the way that they still do in our bodies – starting out as nothing but cartilage at first, and then gradually interweaving with calcium and phosphorus and boron and zinc.

Maybe you don’t have as much of a choice as you think you do. In his book Arguments on Evolution, a Paleontologist’s Perspective, published in the Cenozoic, (which evolves not only people, but books) the paleontologist Antoni Hoffman will propose this: Bones are an accident.

At the bottom of the Cambrian seas, says Hoffman, are ridges of underwater volcanoes. Have you noticed the volcanoes? They erupt all the time. They are filling the ocean with calcium that was once buried safely underground.

That much calcium is toxic to living tissue. How will you protect yourself from it? One way is to store it deep within yourself, in the place where you feel it is least likely to recirculate through your body, and hurt you. You will take it into your cartilage and let it make you hard, because that hardness will be an experiment in not dying.

Maybe you are doing this already. Maybe you will continue doing this, long after the volcanoes have stopped erupting, so that calcium is something that you actually seek out. Something that you will look for on ingredients labels (another invention of the Cenozoic) and even buy in the florescent-lit pill section of the grocery store.

Because once you are done living underwater, and once you are far away from free-floating calcium, you will find that a skeleton is something that you need. It’s the way these things go, sometimes. The thing you try to protect yourself from becomes something else. The thing that holds you together. The thing you can’t do without.

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