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Nature is all about survival of the fittest, a challenging truth to smaller animals who may lack the size of their predators but make up for this difference with shrewd intelligence and deception. From the gecko self-amputating its tail to distract larger animals on the prowl to sea worms dropping “green bombs” when disturbed or in danger to orangutans inventing an effective language to fend off bigger enemies, illusion is a crucial and amazing component of the animal kingdom.
Heads You Live, Tails You Survive
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What do spiders, sea stars, lobsters and gecko lizards all have in common? They all have the ability to lose appendages at their own discretion. What’s especially unique with the gecko is that it utilizes self-amputation of its tail as a strange means to distract predators, ultimately allowing the lizard to escape unharmed. Amazingly, the gecko tail is part of its spinal cord, and maintains function when it is dropped. Researchers have documented the detached tail moving around and flopping nearly two inches off the ground for up to 30 minutes, providing the gecko with plenty of time to seek freedom as the predator takes its eye off the prize.
While geckos can grow a new tail in nearly two months, such detachment is not without a downside. Gecko tails store extra body fat and nutrients that are beneficial to the lizard, and the new tails do not grow in quite as nicely. As a result, geckos will often return to the site of detachment to try and recoup some of the nutrients stored in their tail. Still, if a gecko ever finds itself in a jam, don’t be surprised if it thinks with not only its head but its tail when diverting hungry predators.
Bombs Away: Two Can Play the Appendage Game
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What geckos are to self-amputation on the land, newly-found sea worms are to self-detachment in the water. Just this past August, researchers detailed the discovery of seven new species of sea worms that live anywhere from just under 6,000 to 12,000 feet in the Pacific Ocean. Apparently, when these sea worms are disturbed, they repeatedly release round, oval or long appendages that glow bright green and distract larger fish. Scientifically named Swima bombiviridis but more stylishly dubbed “green bombers,” these underwater glowworms are like the gecko in that they are able to make do without these lost body parts and regenerate. The lesson to be learned: don’t ever anger these “green bombers” because they armed and dangerous, and willing to shoot repeatedly.
Termites: A Real Pain in the Ear
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Most people who grew up with older brothers know what it’s like to be pushed around and bullied by family. Well, a smaller and wimpier yet smarter class of termites can relate to the feeling…but in their case, the stakes are much higher. Known as Cryptotermes secundus, these small termites are able to coexist in trees and wood despite the presence of their larger cousins, Coptotermes acinaciformis, which feature deadly mandibles that make any encounter a lopsided affair. So how exactly do the smaller termites survive in the presence of their vicious cousins? By eavesdropping. More specifically, these smaller termites interpret the vibrations of these larger termites as they chew, and use these audio cues to gauge how close the danger is in proximity. With this gift of listening put to use, the smaller termites will start tunneling away to safer enclaves where their own species are located. As for those bigger termites, guess the old saying “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” doesn’t quite apply.
Birds of the Feather Flee Together
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Nearly everyone who has worked in a downtown metropolis or simply strolled through a park can relate to the image of an annoying flock of pigeons taking off simultaneously when humans get too close. Not known until recently, startled pigeons are able to flee at the same time due to a unique form of communication that has nothing to do with their squawking and a talking but rather their wings. More specifically, Australian researchers recently discovered that the wings of Crested Pigeons emit a whistling sound when the bird is alarmed, likely due to a primary feather on each wing that is smaller than the other feathers and ultimately acts like a reed that vibrates and makes a loud shrill sound when coming in contact with the other feathers.
Interestingly, the researchers were able to unlock this hidden pigeon communication — marked by takeoffs that are louder and faster than usual — in field studies that used recorded audio of pigeons rapidly fleeing from a simulated hawk call. Upon hearing this audio of the whistling wings, the studied pigeons took off, indicating that they received the signal of perceived danger. So just when nothing else that pigeons do seems to make any sense, at least this whistling indicates some intelligence from these typically crazy birds.
Orangutan Kiss Squeak Speaks of Deception & Innovation
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Just because orangutans are bigger than the other animals mentioned in this article doesn’t mean that they don’t have to or won’t use their noggin for deceptive purposes. According to new research, orangutans have invented a new “kiss squeak” sound to trick approaching predators into thinking that they are bigger than they really are. Now here’s the real kicker: orangutans use a sound modification tool that they crafted themselves out of leaves stripped from twigs to make the squeak, which usually causes the predators to alter their plans. Here’s guessing that Tarzan would be proud of the crude yet effective orangutan invention.