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10 Cool And Quirky Facts We Learned About Animals In 2014
Last year, we read about some pretty bizarre beetles and learned how some frogs use spiky mustaches in battle. We saw how Komodo dragons inspired the movie King Kong, and we also read about scary stories of terrifying pack behavior.
But it was a great year for scientists, too, and researchers from across the world made all sorts of fascinating discoveries about our animal friends. So much like we did for 2013, let’s cover some of the quirky and crazy facts the world learned about animals in 2014.
Covering your scent is crucial when you’re out hunting. That’s why hunters spend so much cash on odorless soaps, scent-free detergents, and specially made outdoor clothing. But humans aren’t the only ones who try to mask their musk. Scientists just discovered another vertebrate who camouflages its scent, and this fellow lives under the sea.
Meet the orange-spotted filefish. It lives throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and you can find them around coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. The ocean is a dangerous place, especially if you’re a pipsqueak, but researchers found that the filefish has an incredible way of hiding from its enemies.
Not only does the filefish hide in the coral, it also enjoys munching on its deep-sea hiding spot. It’s like living in an edible house, only the filefish isn’t concerned with taste. Instead, it’s taking the old proverb “you are what you eat” to a whole new level. After a hearty meal of coral, the fish smells just like its dinner and blends in perfectly with its surroundings, both visually and nasally. So when a blue-spotted rock cod comes swimming along, looking for lunch, it’ll swim right by the filefish, never the wiser.
9Those Darn Cats
Cheetahs are the sports cars of the Serengeti. Sleek and beautiful, they can go from 0 to 95 kilometers (60 mi) per hour in a matter of seconds. However, they’re also the most misunderstood cats on the savannah. You might think that after chasing down an antelope, a cheetah will end up huffing and puffing, totally exhausted. But in 2014, a team led by Mike Scantlebury of Queen’s University Belfast laid that little myth to rest.
Scantlebury captured cheetahs in two South African parks, injected them with a harmless isotope solution, gave them some fashionable radio collars, and set them free. Over the next few weeks, his team tracked the cats, paying particular attention to their feces and urine. By studying the excrement (which was full of that isotope solution), the team could determine how much the cheetahs were moving around.
At the end of the experiment, the group realized that cheetahs barely use any energy while running after prey. In fact, they use the same amount of energy on days when they don’t run at all. It’s kind of like if Usain Bolt were to sprint down the road for about 45 seconds (the average amount of running a cheetah does each day). While the rest of us might keel over and die, it’d just be a quick jog for Bolt. It’s the same with cheetahs.
So if a lion or hyena comes along and steals their lunch, it’s no big deal. The cheetahs are still ready to run. And while we’re shooting down myths, other predators don’t steal from cheetahs all that often. According to Scantlebury, it only happens once out of every 10 kills.
However, cheetahs do spend a lot of energy looking for their food. Finding a warthog requires a lot of walking, and that can take a heavy toll on the cheetah’s energy supply. That’s why cheetahs spend their free time just lounging around. These speedy cats are only active about 12 percent of the time. The rest of the day, they’re conserving their energy. In other words, they’re lazy, just like a bunch of housecats.
8Not All Sharks Are Party Animals
When most people think about sharks, they probably remember that famous monologue from Jaws when Robert Shaw explains, “You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya’, doesn’t seem to be livin’.” Just like Quint, we generally imagine sharks as nothing more than vicious murder machines. And granted, they’re pretty good at tearing stuff up, but perhaps there’s more to sharks than just “kill, kill, kill.”
In October 2014, researchers at the University of Exeter published a paper claiming that some sharks are outgoing while others are introverted wallflowers. The scientists spent a lot of time watching captive small-spotted catsharks (aka lesser-spotted dogfish) swimming around an aquarium and chilling with one another. Catsharks turned out to be social creatures who like hanging out on the ocean floor in groups, lying on top of one another.
However, some didn’t seem to care for all that undersea socializing. Some sharks drifted away from the big bunch. Instead of huddling with the main group, they seemed content to camouflage themselves against the deep sea gravel and just sit around by themselves.
Wondering if maybe these antisocial sharks were just responding to their environment, scientists placed the fish in three different enclosures. But each time, the loners drifted away from the group, content to hang out in the corner while the rest of the sharks enjoyed the party. So do sharks actually have personalities? While we don’t know if they can feel emotions like joy or fear, it seems safe to say that at the very least, some catsharks are kind of shy.
7Sea Turtle Superpowers
Just like zebras, salmon, and monarch butterflies, leatherback sea turtles are migratory animals. During the summer, they hang out in cold northern waters, where they spend their days snapping up fish. But when autumn rolls around, they swim back south before things get too chilly. But do sea turtles know when to clear out?
According to an article in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, sea turtles have their very own built-in skylights that alert them to seasonal changes. If you were to look at a sea turtle’s head, you’d notice a pink spot on the top of it. That part of the turtle’s head is so thin that sunlight streams through the pink spot and hits the pineal gland, the part of the brain in charge of seasonal behavior.
When summer turns into autumn, turtles can detect the difference in the sunlight thanks to that pink window on top of their skulls. But that isn’t the only interesting thing we learned about sea turtles in 2014.
When baby turtles hatch, they all hatch at the same time. This way, when they make a run for the ocean, a greater number of babies will survive the assault by predators. Sure, some poor turtle has to take one for the team, but most will make it to the water unscathed.
Now, this isn’t new information. Back in 2011, Ricky-John Spencer of the University of Western Sydney noticed this behavior in Australian river turtles. He theorized that babies plan their big break via chemicals, possibly a buildup of CO2. But in 2014, a group of Brazilian, Mexican, and American researchers discovered leatherback sea turtles babies coordinate by talking to each other.
The researchers noticed that around Day 51—the day when a sea turtle’s ears can hear sound—the babies start making a series of complex noises. By chirping back and forth, the turtles work as a team, hatching at the same time so they can make their great escape.
You might think “regret” is an emotion unique to human beings, but our fuzzy friends feel remorse, too, especially when they miss out on their favorite snacks.
Scientists at the University of Minnesota constructed a pathway called “Restaurant Row.” Restaurant Row looked like a circle with four separate branches. These spokes were the restaurants, and each served a different-flavored pellet. However, each restaurant had a different wait time indicated by a particular musical tone. So at one restaurant, it might be a 20-second wait for a chocolate pellet. At another, it might take five seconds to get a pellet that tastes like cherries.
Next, scientists unleashed the rats. One at a time, the rodents scampered down Restaurant Row, always moving forward, and they were forced to choose which restaurant to visit. There were several factors at play, most importantly “taste” and “time.”
Let’s say a rat—we’ll call him Remy—wanders into a restaurant where they’re serving banana pellets. Remy absolutely loves bananas, but when he finds out he has to wait 10 seconds, he has to make a decision. Should he try his luck at the next restaurant, or should he just wait?
Remy grows impatient and heads down to the next restaurant. However, much to his dismay, he discovers that they’re serving chocolate pellets (which he isn’t wild about), and now he’ll have to wait 18 seconds. Scientists noticed some very interesting behavior. Longing for the banana pellet, Remy would glance back at the restaurant he left behind.
Not only that, but thanks to electronic scans, scientists could see a lot of action in the rat’s orbitofrontal cortex. In humans, that part of the brain is in charge of regret. It appeared the rodents were mentally smacking themselves for making such a stupid decision. In addition to the brain activity, the rats quickly wolfed down their food and hurried on to the next restaurant, hoping to find a better deal.
Plus, Remy learned to be a lot more patient the next time around.
5The Motherly Instinct
You don’t want to stand between a momma and her baby. If a mother thinks her child is in trouble, she’ll go into full-fledged superhero mode. And we’re not just talking about humans. From bears to bovines, mammal mothers are always on the alert when it comes to their kids.
Deer are no different. If a doe thinks her fawn is in trouble, she’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe. You know what we’re talking about. You’ve seen Bambi. However, researchers from the University of Winnipeg made an amazing discovery about the nature of motherhood when they ran a rather unique experiment. It seems a mother deer doesn’t just react to the sound of her own baby . . . she’ll respond to the cries of human infants, too.
The Canadian researchers made several recordings of young creatures in distress and played the clips for wild mule deer. While each doe ignored the recordings of birds and coyotes, they had extremely strong reactions to the sounds of kittens, fur seal pups, humans, and even bats. When the deer heard these cries, they took off running in the direction of the noise, trying to find the baby in danger.
Obviously, the deer have never run across a fur seal and wouldn’t know what to do with a kitten, so why did they respond so quickly? Scientists aren’t exactly sure, but evidently, all these distress cries share some common trait that causes the motherly instinct to kick into gear. In fact, this startling study even indicates different animals share similar emotions, even though they belong to completely separate species.
4Bats Are Jerks
If you live in the American southwest, chances are good that you’ve seen the Mexican free-tailed bat. There are over 100 million of these little guys in the states, and as the name implies, there are lot in Mexico as well. Like 70 percent of bats worldwide, free-tailed bats are insectivores and rely on echolocation to find their prey . . . but sometimes things can get tricky.
Echolocation is animal sonar. Bats emit calls, the waves go out and bounce back, and badda bing, the bat has a picture of its surroundings. Most importantly, it knows where to find those tasty bugs.
But when a bunch of bats fly in the same spot at once, sonar waves sometimes bounce off one another. When that happens, the bat’s mental map gets all blurry. Fortunately, there’s a quick fix to the echolocation problem. When their signals get crossed, bats simply change frequencies.
However, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Wake Forest University, some Mexican free-tailed bats jam up the sonar on purpose. Let’s say one bat has his eye on a juicy moth but notices a second bat going to get it first. The first bat will blast out an ultrasonic signal that overwhelms all the frequencies. The second bat is now horribly confused. His world goes fuzzy, and he can’t find the moth, giving the first bat time to claim his prize.
3The Mystery Of A Narwhal’s Tusk
Everybody loves narwhals with their giant, pointy spears growing out of their mouths. Those ivory-colored corkscrews are actually really long canines (narwhals hate going to the dentist) and can get up to 3 meters (9 ft) long.
It seems those elongated teeth serve more than one purpose. In March, Harvard biologist Martin Nweeia reported that narwhal tusks act like underwater super sensors. They’re full of “nerve-rich pulp,” the same stuff that makes your teeth hurt when you bite something cold. Only narwhals seem particularly sensitive to salt.
Nweeia made the connection after designing “tusk jackets,” special sheaths he slipped over their twisty teeth. Once the jackets were on, he filled the plastic tubes with water. Sometimes, it was just your average bucket of seawater, but other times, it was extremely salty. And when Nweeia used the high-saline solution, the narwhal’s heart rate shot through the roof.
Narwhals have good reason to care about salt. When icebergs form and the water starts freezing, the water gets really salty, and narwhals have to book it, or they might end up stuck in the ice. So perhaps tusks act like an early warning system, alerting the animals to the dangers of their environment.
However, in September, Trish C. Kelley of the University of Manitoba discovered a second and much sexier tidbit of narwhal tusk trivia. In what had to be a really awkward study, Kelley and her team noted a direct connection between the size of a narwhal’s tusk and the size of his testicles. In other words, the bigger the tusk, the bigger the balls, making it easy for guys to impress the ladies.
2Blame It On The Seals (Maybe)
The Europeans’ arrival in the Americas sparked an exciting age of discovery. The natives discovered some new things, too, like smallpox, cholera, and typhus, courtesy of Columbus and company. But while the Europeans brought along a particularly nasty strain of tuberculosis, this wasn’t the first time TB had shown up in the New World.
Researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany were studying the disease when they made some really fascinating discoveries. According to these scientists, TB first showed up in Africa about 6,000 years ago. The researchers also analyzed several Peruvian skeletons that dated between A.D. 700 and 1,000 and found the remains of TB DNA. So how did it make its way across the Atlantic?
The scientists next compared the pre-Columbian germs to modern strains of tuberculosis. They were shocked to find the closest match was a kind of TB that infects sea creatures like seals and sea lions.
One theory says that seals (or sea lions) contracted TB from an African animal and brought the disease across the ocean. The Peruvians hunted the animals and ate the meat, and soon TB was spreading across the continents, courtesy of those adorable marine-dwelling mammals.
There are competing theories. Some claim TB first showed up far earlier in buffaloes and mammoths crossing the Bering Strait. However, the evidence against the seals is pretty intriguing. Of course, this particular strain doesn’t exist today as it was beaten into submission by the TB the Europeans brought over. Thanks, Columbus!
1Don’t Tase Me, Bro!
The electric eel is one dangerous fish. Touch one, and you’ll end up with 600 volts coursing through your body. But while everyone knows electric eels are bad news, we actually didn’t know much about the way they hunted prey. That all changed thanks to Vanderbilt University biologist Kenneth Catania, who discovered that electric eels are long, slimy tasers.
Electric eels live in South American rivers like the Amazon, tricky places to find food. Sure, the water’s jam-packed with fish, but fish are pretty good at hiding. However, the eel (technically a knifefish) has an impressive trick that forces fish to give away their hiding spots. As it cruises down the river, the eel shoots out two fast pulses called doublets. The electric doublet causes a nearby fish to jerk, sending out vibrations and giving itself away.
The eel goes into supercop mode. Once it locates its dinner, it has to act fast and starts unleashing lightning bolts. Only instead of a steady stream of electricity, the eels release about 400 pulses a second. These bursts of electricity go straight for the nervous system which in turn paralyzes the poor fishie’s muscles. (That’s the exact same thing that happens when you get tased.) Once the prey is immobilized, the eel moves in for a nice, tasty snack.