I recently assisted my daughter with a most interesting project for her 8th grade science class. The assignment was to learn about a Biome, write a report on it, then design an animal to live in it.
The students were to provide a description of the characteristics of their animal which suited it to life in the Biome they selected, and make a model of the animal for display. My daughter selected arctic tundra for the Biome. We read up on it, she did the report, then the fun began.
She has a housecat, (felis-catus) named Chester of whom she is very fond. He seemed a good starting point. We designed several adaptations to Chester to enable him to thrive in the arctic tundra. First, and most obviously, we made him all white to blend into the snow. Then we regressed his legs to vestigial stumps and flattened him out dramatically so he could hug the ground and better avoid being picked off by predators, as well as stay low out of the wind. His species is therefore felis-flatus. (That’s “flatus” as in flat to the ground, rhymes with “catus” not the other meaning which my son already had fun with.)
For locomotion we gave his edges the ability to undulate, like a Manta ray’s. So he gets around by flapping along the ground. This action also helps him clear snow from the burrows of his prey. He doesn’t have to be fast as he can’t outrun predators anyway, and his own prey is small rodents that live in the ground. To extract them he positions himself over their burrows and runs his very long (heavily modified) tongue down the hole, wraps it around their little necks, and pulls them into his mouth.
When it’s very cold he can roll up into a tube to conserve heat, with his soft belly deep inside a cocoon of fluffy insulating fur.
My daughter thought he should be able to fight back if attacked, rather than just huddle up, and so added spikes to his tail, so he can whip it up and clobber anything that steps on him or tries to bite him.
She made a cute little model of Chester’s new relative to which, because of his method of locomotion, we gave the common name of “flap-cat.”
She received a 100% grade for this new species of cat.
I thought this was a great exercise in intelligent design. I made sure my daughter understood it that way too. What I’m not sure of is how the teacher understood it. The assignment sheet was out of the official science curriculum.
What this assignment was not was an exercise demonstrating gradual adaptation and selection. Future paleontologists who found fossils of felis-catus and felis-flatus could no doubt make up all sorts of stories about how one had gradually evolved into the other, despite the paucity of intermediate forms. The fact would remain, though, that our flap-cat was developed in one afternoon from my daughter’s housecat.
And her school had whole classrooms of students similarly intelligently designing animals. Beautiful.
Maybe there’s hope for science education after all.