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The debates will no doubt evolve as new fossils are discovered. With their proposed list of traits in hand, Field and his team called on renowned paleoartist Julius Csotonyi to bring this ancient ancestor to life in an illustration. As for the snakes that existed even before this one? The analysis offers some new insights: It suggests a new date for when snakes diverged from the rest of the reptiles, million years ago. This differs from most accepted estimates for the snake-reptile split, which was thought to have happened around million years ago.

It also suggests that snakes evolved entirely on land, despite key anatomical similarities with extinct, ocean-dwelling reptiles called mosasaurs.

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Mah Jong Quest. In the mids a friend from down the hill came for a drink and remarked on the tall grass in the meadow in front of my house. This neighbour, the late Peregrine Eliot, was a large landowner in Cornwall, and familiar with farming life. In Hawaii he was usually barefoot and bone idle, wearing an aloha shirt and shorts, always with a smile. A feed store sold me three Embden goslings, which grew quickly into two good-sized ganders and one plump goose. The breed originated in Germany: pure white, orange beaked; the stark purity of their feathers gives prominence to their eyes, as blue and luminous as the Pacific.

Being heavy — a gander twenty pounds, a goose somewhat less — they are usually raised for their meat. They went to work on my grass, they were good tempered and alert; one gander paired with the goose, the remaining gander seemed to imprint on me.


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  4. After a year or so the goose was sitting on eggs, on a nest in a sheltered spot under the house. A commotion one day, panicky shrieks from the gander, agonising honks from the goose. I did not see his dog again; though I do battle with other predators and pests — feral cats, wild pigs, mongooses, climbing roof rats and tenacious half-pound Norway rats. I put three still warm eggs under a duck that had just begun to sit on a large clutch — a Muscovy duck, used to brooding for 35 days.

    And one morning, before the duck eggs hatched, I saw a wet yellow gosling tumble from beneath the Muscovy. The first moving creature Willy saw was me, and he snuggled in my hand, and when I put him in a warm cage I kept it at eye level and made sure he had plenty to eat.

    He doubled in size in ten days, and within a month grew pinfeathers, and then fledged in earnest, spiky feathers that gave him bulk and turned him white. When I held him I could feel his pulsing heart, his warm body. For the first time since my children finished school my writing day was changed, brightened in unexpected ways. Willy was to be attended to, fed with pellets, the horse trough filled with water so he could climb in and splash, diving, beating his wings and then grooming himself as he dried off in the sun, pecking at his feathers, combing them smooth with his beak.

    The other geese snapped at the grass, now an acre of close-cropped lawn, as Perry Eliot had promised; Willy lingered near the door of my studio and squawked in recognition when I appeared at lunchtime to feed him by hand. Often he simply lingered, working his beak, sniffing, lowering his head and lengthening his neck if another goose came near, possessive of me.

    Geese are usually in motion, except at night, though their sleeping habits are a riddle: they seem to stay awake all night, napping selectively during the day, tucking their head under one wing for brief periods. The gander remains with the goose and can be extremely aggressive in the mating season, attacking any intruder — even me. But Willy served as my protector and would often chase away any gander that assumed a threat posture or aimed his beak at my shins. Unlike the others, Willy could be stillness itself, sated with food, when I rested with him after my own lunch on the low lava stone wall and stroked his feathers.

    One or two birds in a gaggle always lag behind, pecked at by the others, especially the strongest male. He was of the gaggle but not in it.

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    This oblique behaviour I recognised from my own family life when, as one of seven children, my instinct was to stay with the group even when I was rebuffed, or mocked, or bullied by my older brothers, or by my sisters who, as girls, were licensed to tease with impunity. Or when older, imposed on by the petty alliances of my siblings, I remained at the periphery in the magnetic field of affinity, but did not completely separate myself from the dominant others in the family flock.

    And I saw his remedy, the way he often hurried — goose-stepped — away from the others at feeding time to meet me covertly at the side of the house to be given his own meal, which he ate alone, round about the time of day I was eating alone. He hurried to me when I called him by name. On my arrival at the long driveway he emitted a squawk of recognition from a hundred yards away when the iron wheels of the entrance gate clanked against their rail. I might have been away for months, but when I returned he flew to me, low to the ground as Embdens do, and settled by my side.

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    Geese vocalise in various ways; I grew to know the sounds he made — the caw of contentment, the shriek, the harsh squawk, the hiss, and loudest of all the trumpeting after overcoming an adversary. All these sounds are very different from the soft notes of a female, her honks and grunts. Now and then Willy scissored his beak without a sound, as though in a silent stammer. Like the other geese, he spent a good part of his day preening, cleaning and ordering his feathers with his beak. Geese bathe rather than swim, diving and immersing their heads, and beating their wings in the water to sluice them.

    A pool or basin of shallow water seems necessary for geese to mate, a ritual which is brief and smothering. For a time, Willy had a companion goose, but in the clash of ganders during the mating season he was driven from this partnership, forcibly separated from the goose, and spent more time with me. And in those days and weeks when I felt uninspired and superfluous as a writer he was a consolation.

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    The gaggle increased to eight big birds. I sold some to people on the understanding that they would use them to trim their grass and would not kill them. He became a fixture, in the grassy acre, at the house, near the studio, in my life — a certainty, dependable and unassertive, as true as a compass point, but looming, a graceful ornament, like one of those trophy boasts on a large estate, a marble figure set on a conspicuous plinth, just as lovely, the whiteness of his feathers giving him a marmoreal distinction.

    Years of this.