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A recent study detailed that nearly 50 percent of dogs and almost 60 percent of cats are overweight or obese due to high-calorie diets and insufficient exercise, sparking questions in this author’s mind about the eating habits of animals in the wild. From bonobos maintaining a unique food rating system to rats falling in love with junk food to apes knowing when wild fruit is perfectly ripe to lizards literally basking in the sun for Vitamin-D, animal consumption is a wide spectrum of cool, absurd, weird, disgusting and critical stories. Bon appetite.
Nature’s Food Critics: The Bonobos
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Apparently if bonobos could talk, they would tell you that their top 5 favorite foods are as follows: figs, raisins, grapes, bananas and popcorn. That’s not bad in terms of healthy foods. According to recent research, bonobos preferred these foods during a study that examined their eating behavior and ultimately learned that these animals maintain a unique vocalization system to express their like or dislike for certain types of foods. More specifically, bonobos made a barking sound when presented with their favorite foods and grunted like a little piggy when presented with unfavorable foods. Foods that were in-between in terms of bonobo likes and dislikes were greeted with peeps, peep-yelps and yelps. Yams and peppers were least liked by the bonobos, which researchers believe use this vocalization system in the wild to communicate with other bonobos about the presence of certain types of foods.
Nature’s Junk Food Lovers: The Rats
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Just when the bonobos get us off to a good start about eating healthy, leave it to the rats to come in and screw everything up. Actually, recent research showing how rats get hooked on junk food could have larger implications for understanding why people may become addicted to food and drugs. More specifically, pleasure centers in the brains of rats become less responsive once rats become addicted to junk food, a similar effect seen in previous studies in which rats became addicted to heroine. In the food study, a group of rats was given junk food like Ho Hos, sausage, pound cake, bacon and cheesecake. These rats soon became so addicted to these less-than-healthy foods that they became less active and continued to eat them despite knowing that they would receive a mild, electrical shock. According to researchers, the rats needed more and more of the junk food to receive pleasure once they got hooked on these fatty substances, just as rats on heroine needed more and more of the drug once they became addicted. Even more interesting, the addicted rats refused to eat any other food for two weeks once the junk food was taken away from them, choosing to starve rather than subsist on healthier grub.
Nature’s Man-Eaters: The Tsavo Lions
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What happens when grazing animals like buffalo, zebras and other normal sources of food were not available to lions as a result of drought? In 1898, two Tsavo lions in Kenya turned to the convenience of man at a time when there were more humans in their area during construction of the Uganda Railroad. Recent research examined the carbon and nitrogen in the teeth of the remains of the two lions — now on display at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History — and estimated that the lions claimed 35 humans in a 9-month period. Past accounts had credited the lions with eating as many as 135 humans during that span before they were shot to death. Especially interesting and scary is the belief that the lions worked in a tandem when hunting men.
Nature’s Vitamin-D Lovers: Lizards
We’ve all seen pictures of lizards basking in the sun, a common ritual that had been popularly believed to help regulate the body temperatures of these reptiles. According to new research, it turns out that lizards also bask in the sun to get them some vitamin D, a vital nutrient found in orange juice. Lizards and humans are similar in that we both have compounds in our skin that can convert sunlight into vitamin D. What’s especially interesting with lizards is the belief that these reptiles have sensors in their brains telling them when they’ve gotten the right amount of Vitamin D. Why does this matter? Well, too little vitamin D can make the lizards sick while too much of this nutrient can be toxic. Sure, this example of lizards basking in the sun for vitamin D is not exactly a story about animal eating habits, but it certainly is a relevant depiction of how other types of animal consumption are as vital to healthy living.
Nature’s Food Testers: Apes
Apes have always loved to get their hands on bananas at any time of the day, but did you know that these primates may actually know when this favorite fruit is just right for their picking and eating without even having to peel one open? According to new research, dying brown spots on bananas are surrounded by rings that glow blue in ultraviolet light and may suggest to wild apes that the food is good to eat. Scientists have theorized that apes search for food that emits short-wavelength light and use this detection to gauge whether food is ripe or rotten. Since apes are better than humans at seeing such light, these new findings on the light emitted from bananas could eventually provide more research on the eating habits of apes.
Nature’s Spoilers: Firefly Flashes
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Just as light seemingly plays a role in how apes and monkeys determine when to eat food, light also signals to other animals not to eat certain types of prey. A recent study found that bats use firefly lights as a signal not to eat this prey, a good decision when considering that fireflies can be toxic for bats. According to field observations, fireflies may actually help themselves and larger predators by flashing light when in danger. Researchers provided the example of a bat catching a firefly with its wing or tail prior to getting ready to eat it. However, with such contact, a firefly may emit its light, signaling to the bat to let the prey go because of its danger, thus saving the firefly’s life. Based on field observations, bat reactions to eating fireflies are not good and can include head shaking, gagging and vomiting.
Nature’s Secret Food Stashes: Penguins and Sperm Whales
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Sometimes when the going gets tough for finding food in nature, the tough get going. For a long time, scientists wondered why some penguins actually leave their families and drift out to sea for long periods of time. This mystery is now understood based on new research of adult Macaroni penguins in the Subantarctic. Following spring breeding, these adult penguins spend six months swimming and diving in the deep sea so that they can feed on a secret stash of food: Subantarctic krill and crustaceans. As for the mythical and elusive sperm whale, it was recently captured on video stealing fish from fishing lines. Amazingly, the sperm whale was able to unhook the fish without getting caught in the fishing lines. For a mammal that big, stealing fish seems like an uneven playing field, but hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do sometimes.
Nature’s Food Myths: Beavers
(Image via: Max Wideman)
Beavers have always subsisted on and loved eating wood, right? Not so, according to new research that details how giant beavers in the Ice Age were more like hippos than modern beavers in terms of what they ate. Carbon dating of the extinct giant beaver Castoroides ohionesis revealed that this precursor to the modern beaver ate large amounts of aquatic plants and pond weeds as there were likely few trees during the Ice Age. However, once the climate became better and wetlands were replaced by forests, the beaver’s love for tree bark began. In current times, beavers crave wood so badly that they will resort to eating their own homes when in need of food.
Nature’s Food Crises: Albatrosses and Leatherback Turtles
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Just how dangerous is pollution — particularly introducing plastic into the environment — to animals? Ask remote albatrosses and ancient leatherback turtles. A recent study found that Laysan albatrosses living on Kure Atoll (a remote island in the Pacific Ocean) ingest 10 times more plastic than chicks living on the populated island of Oahu. Another study analyzed 400 deceased leatherback turtles and found that approximately 1/3 of these reptiles had plastic in their digestive systems. It turns out that these turtles can easily mistake plastic for jellyfish, their main source of food. Just as plastic can block a turtle’s gut, cause digestive problems and even lead to death, this material can also puncture intestinal tracts of albatrosses, thus highlighting the dangers of improper garbage disposal and the importance of recycling.