I bought a book for Kierstin a while ago; it got my attention with its comedic title: Why Dogs Eat Poop & Other Useless or Gross Information about the Animal Kingdom. She hasn’t read it, but I picked it up a while ago for some light reading before bed. The book contains bizarre facts about unique animals. These short excerpts often leave me mouth agape, tapping Kierstin and rereading passages about the strange inner-workings of reptiles that regenerate appendages, avian accents, and parrots that preserve languages. This week and next week’s Tuesday Trivia segment will outline a few of the more interesting tidbits.
The book captivates immediately, first describing one of the most fascinating creatures of land, sea, or air. The mimic octopus is incredibly unique, with the ability, as its name suggests, to imitate other sea animals. Many animals utilize camouflage for protection or to catch prey, but few animals imitate other animals. What makes the mimic octopus even more exceptional is that it will alter its impersonation based on its need. It will use some imitations while hunting and some imitations while being hunted. It can pretend to be a female crab to seduce male crabs, only to quickly devour them when they get close, or it can imitate a poisonous fish to ward off harmful predators. It is known to copy the behaviors of at least fifteen different species; it can impersonate sea snakes, lionfish, flatfish, sole fish, brittle stars, giant crabs, sea stars, stingrays, flounders, jellyfish, sea anemones, and mantis shrimp.
The mimic octopus combines two skills to trick predators and prey. It has pigment sacs known as chromatophores, which can trigger a color change in the octopus. In addition, the octopus cleverly mocks the behavior of other animals. It will hide its body and seven of its arms in a hole while waving the eighth arm above the hole to imitate a sea snake. It can spread its tentacles out and drift above the ocean floor in the same way a lion fish would. How these behaviors were learned and how the octopus knows which organism to imitate is not well understood – these cephalopods were first classified in 1998. It is obvious, though, that the ability to combine adaptive coloration and body distortion makes mimic octopuses very fascinating.
It is well-known that dogs have an incredible sense of smell. They are utilized in bomb squads and drug detection, and popular anecdotes relay dogs sensing carbon monoxide and saving their family. Boosting their sniffing prowess, recent research has possibly demonstrated that a dog can even use its nose to detect cancer. Multiple studies have shown that, by smelling a patient’s breath, the dogs can detect breast and lung cancer with accuracy rates as high as 99%.
The InSitu Foundation is an organization that was founded in response to these studies. This non-profit trains dogs in cancer detection and is striving to gain FDA approval on a canine medical scent detection kit. Even if the organization does not realize its goals, the research revealing this amazing ability of dogs could help scientists produce a Breathalyzer-esque cancer detection test.
Tiny insects called aphids feed upon sweet plant nectar, and they often need to overeat to obtain all necessary nutrients. The excess sap unused by the aphids is either excreted or seeps through their body in small drops of honeydew. This sugary, concentrated energy source would just go to waste, but there are certain ants that milk aphids for their honeydew in the same way a farmer milks his cows. The comparison goes beyond that, with ants sometimes tending to a herd of aphids by building shelters and taking the aphids out to graze on succulent plants. The ants also practice hormonal modification and inhibit sexual maturation of their aphid herds. When mature, aphids will typically grow wings and fly away, but ants have developed the ability to produce a hormone that slows this process.
These ants can be considered “cattle farmers”, but there are also other species of ant that are “arable farmers”. Leaf-cutter ants chew on leaves, but they don’t consume the leaves. Instead, they collect the leaves to grow gardens of fungi and eat their crop. Like any good farmer, leaf-cutter ants must fertilize and protect their crop. What is even more fascinating is that the fungi grown is found nowhere else on earth – it’s a unique crop only grown by these farming ants.
With their incessant squawking and the reputation of birds as brainless, crows may not come across as the most intelligent beings. In Japan, there are carrion crows that feast on walnuts even though they can’t crack the shell with their beaks. Many birds face this a similar challenge and have learned how to drop their potential meal onto a rock, revealing the delicious snack inside. Bearded vultures have been observed practicing this method when dropping bones from the sky to obtain the nutritious bone marrow contained within. However, walnuts might need to be dropped fifty times before the shell breaks, and there’s only a tiny reward inside.
The carrion crows developed an ingenious scheme to crack open walnuts, utilizing modern transportation to break the obstinate shell. The birds wait for a traffic light to turn red, glide down to a stopped vehicle, and place a raw walnut under the tire of the car. The light turns green, and the car crushes the walnut open. The crow can just wait for traffic to stop again to enjoy a tasty snack. This behavior indicates that crows have gained some understanding of how traffic lights work and demonstrates the intelligence of these creatures.
This segment will continue in a future Tuesday Trivia post with four more astounding animal behaviors.