September 25, 2007

Tycho Suave

As I may have mentioned before, I am working as a TA for Introductory Biology lab this semester. I have been generally encouraged by my students' attitudes in class, and last night even heard what sounded like a sincere "Yay biology lab" from one of them. As one of the two sections I teach is on Monday nights from 6:00 until 9:00 PM, I do my best to make the class interesting and fun by cracking jokes and pointing out odd bits of information that isn't necessarily covered in the materials provided but that I think the students will get a kick out of knowing, and so far so good.

Last night's lab was a broad survey of animal behavior including an introduction to the foundational concept of taxis. For those outside the wonderful world of biology and ethology, taxis aren't something you catch when you need a ride to the airport. A taxis (pronounced TAX-iss) is the movement or overall reaction of an organism to a stimulus in its environment, unmediated by conscious deliberation. For instance, if you shine a bright light on planaria, they will move in the opposite direction. More complex organisms exhibit taxis, too, including reptiles. To make the class a bit more fun and get the students feeling more involved, I decide to bring Tycho to lab last night. He readily exhibits two forms of taxis. First, he will flick his tongue out when he encounters something new, including a person he hasn't met before, in order to gather chemical information about that thing. Second, if a bright light is shone near him, he will turn his eye toward the light and cock his head. While the class was expected to observe planaria and wood lice, I thought it would be more fun to have a large, exotic-looking lizard as an example, too.

Tycho was very obliging, of course. I set him down on a table and the students gathered around. I asked for a volunteer to put a finger near his head and when this happened, Tycho flicked his tongue out at it as expected. I showed them his "light-gazing" taxis as well. No problems. After this, the class was to watch a segment from The Life of Birds on courtship behavior, so I turned off the lights and showed the video. Tycho was much too excited by all the new people to stay on my shoulder, so I left him on the table.

While we were watching the video, Tycho made his way off the table and onto the leg of one of the female students. The next thing I knew, he was draped over her leg. Two other women had moved in close, too. So there was Tycho, his legs over either side of the student's thigh, his eyes half-closed, with not one but three freshman women petting him. The only way I can describe his overall demeanor was a full-body expression of, "Ahhhhh, this is the life."

Of course, in explaining Tycho's behavior to the class, I had pointed out that reptiles have very simple brains and lack the structures necessary for cogitation. Tycho apparently disagreed. Why, and if, he had chosen to clamber into the lap of that particular student is a mystery to me, but he certainly found himself a good spot. I practically had to pry him away from the students when the video segment had finished, but if I hadn't I think they would have spent the entire lab period caressing and cooing over that spiky lizard and wouldn't have gotten their work done.

For a tiny-brained, insectivorous reptile, Tycho sure seems to have have the whole world figured out sometimes. I'll be taking him back to school again on Thursday for my morning lab section, too. He definitely helped get the students feeling more involved with the material and exhibited some distinct, if not entirely natural, behavior. In any case, I'm sure he won't mind spending another hour or so as the center of attention. He is, after all, Tycho Suave.

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