Featured Creature Friday: The Great Potoo

greatpotooI didn’t even have to think of an adjective to describe this week’s featured creature, because even its official name thinks it’s just great. I’ll tell you right now why the Great Potoo is so awesome: huge yellow eyes and a gaping mouth make it look like a completely fictional animal invented by the Jim Henson puppet workshop, and its most common call sounds like it’s trying to call its mom from some Lovecraftian afterlife.

This nocturnal bird can be found in ranges from southern Mexico into Central and South America, and they require trees for their lifestyle, so they tend to live in woodlands and on the edges of forests. Their feathers, in a range of assorted browns, look pretty unremarkable until you see the Great Potoo’s greatest trick, which is its disappearing act. Its coloration is perfect camouflage against the bark of trees where it perches, but it also spends a lot of its time actively pretending to be the tree. It takes on a posture to make itself look like a broken branch, and chooses ideal perches that help it carry forth that illusion, like it’s really dedicated to performance art. Really boring, very still performance art. They’re incredibly dedicated to the art, too; a Great Potoo won’t abandon its tree impression until a predator is almost on top of it.

This strategy carries over to their child-rearing habits, too; instead of building an elaborate nest, the Great Potoo lays an egg and sits it on top of a stump or in a little hollow on a tree, and then the parent sits on top of the egg, and later the chick, occasionally taking off after flying insects (and sometimes even bats!) , and then flying right back to continue the long-term tree impression.

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Featured Creature Friday: The Legendary Lammergeier

By Arjan Haverkamp [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Arjan Haverkamp [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ladies, gentlemen, distinguished guests, please allow me to introduce you to the most metal of vultures.

I’m not even kidding. Everything about this bird is hard-core, starting with its name. It’s called a Bearded Vulture, which admittedly is a little tame, but it’s also known as a Lammergeier — German for “lamb-vulture” — and it used to be known as Ossifrage, from the Latin for “bone-breaker,” both of which could also double as killer names for a death metal band.

Being vultures, Lammergeiers generally feed on carrion, and here’s the ultimate reason why this bird is too awesome to exist: it eats bones.

In fact, it eats almost nothing but bones, with 85-90% of its diet consisting of bone marrow. Rather than compete with other scavengers in its habitat (which stretches through mountainous regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa), it just sits back and chills while they do all the work picking the meat from the carcass. When the meal is down to the bare bones — no pun intended — the Lammergeier swoops in to claim the skeleton. The Lammergeier can simply crunch its way through bones up to the size of a lamb’s femur, or might use its beak to smash a larger bone against a rock until it cracks open. For the biggest bones — some of them just as heavy as the Lammergeier is — it’ll simply carry them aloft to heights upwards of 200 feet, and then drop them against the rocks below, cracking the bones open so they can get at the marrow inside. It’s not just a random toss, either; it takes young Lammergeiers about seven years to perfect the technique. The Lammergeier’s highly acidic stomach contents — with an estimated pH of 1 — mean it can digest even hard, dry pieces of bone; it can continue to feast on a skeleton for months after all the marrow and soft pieces are gone.

As if the bone-eating weren’t awesome enough, Lammergeiers also kill more live prey than perhaps any other vulture; they’ll use their bone-breaking technique to crack open the shells of tortoises, but they’ll also do it to kill small mammals and sometimes beat smaller birds to death with their wings. (The Greek playwright Aeschylus was said to have met a death by tortoise when a Lammergeier mistook his bald head for a stone and dropped a tortoise on him from a great height.) The Lammergeier may also use its intimidating size — it has a wingspan of nearly 10 feet — to surprise and attack larger animals like wild goats and antelope, pushing them from cliffs and ledges.

By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The bone-crushing and murder are only a part of why this bird is so great, though. It’s also just plain pretty as hell. Probably because its scavenging behavior is so different from the majority of other vultures, it also looks quite a bit different; unlike its often bald-headed fellows, the Lammergeier has a fully feathered head, including the feathery beard for which it is named and a pair of eyebrows I think we can all agree that even Spock would envy, along with brightly red-ringed eyes. The adult’s plummage is typically a sort of cream color, but they usually look more rusty red or orange, since they deliberately dye their feathers.

The adult birds wallow in iron-rich dust baths, which tints their feathers, but the behavior is thought to be very deliberate:

Why would a big, burly, black-and-white vulture gussy itself up in blush? It may boil down to a combination of diet and a society based on status. “Their diet is primarily ungulate bones,” says Margalida. They search cliff sides and valleys for sheep or chamois skeletons cleared of meat by other scavengers. While nutritious, the bones lack carotenoids, substances common in seeds and berries that give most other birds their flashy feathers.

“Red is very popular in the bird world,” says Margalida, adding that, in bearded vultures, the color appears to be a status symbol. Females, the dominant sex, are brighter than males. Color intensity also grows with age. A bird often handles conflict by puffing out and displaying its dyed ’do.

So they eat bones, they wear make-up, and if you cross them you could end up suffering a death by falling tortoise. If that’s not completely bad-ass, I don’t know what is.

A Ride on the Heber Valley Railroad

I can’t say I’ve ever been a railroad enthusiast, but I’ve always meant to take a ride on one of those tourist-style historic railway tours. I lived near the Skunk Train and the Narrow Gauge Railroad without ever riding either one, so when my brother and his wife were visiting this week, and he suggested we go for a trip on the Heber Creeper, it seemed my time for a train ride had come at last.

The Heber Valley Railroad offers a variety of trip options, including packages with horseback riding and rafting, but we opted for the shortest trip, a half-hour ride through Heber Valley farm country, along some marshy wetlands and creeks, to the banks of the Deer Creek Reservoir. There were some beautiful views, and we were lucky enough to choose a day that was lovely and overcast.

Overall it was a nice trip, though being confined to a single car full of families with young children — one of the hazards of living in Utah — meant the noise level got a little unbearable at times. Part of the ride is entertainment, which includes a stop for a “train robbery” at Soldier Hollow, and a singing train robber through  most of the remainder of the ride, and though I personally had less than zero interest in any of those things, the kids sure seemed to enjoy it. (The singer had a lovely voice, but the train car acoustics and noisy audience weren’t doing her any favors.) For more curmudgeonly passengers like myself, the views were certainly enough to make the ride worth the price of admission.

This Is Why I Prefer Animals That Are At Least Car-Sized

Back in the days of yore, when I was just an idealistic young student taking my first conservation biology course, I remember my professor bemoaning the state of modern conservation. People, she said, were only interested in “charismatic megafauna” — all those big, popular, well-known animals that you expect to see in every zoo ever, like elephants, giraffes, lions, wolves, bears, tigers, and so on. I guess having a problem with this is a lot like being a biology hipster, but I could see her point; while donors pour millions into conservation and research for a handful of these “popular” species, hundreds or even thousands more are much more desperately in need of aid… or even just in need of understanding. It’s tough to raise money for the conservation of a spider because people hate spiders. It’s tough to raise money for the conservation of a jellyfish because, as we all know, jellyfish are the enemy. Try telling people that you want to save the monkfish and they’ll run away screaming. I mean, once you show them a picture. Nobody knows what a monkfish is right off the bat except maybe monkfish enthusiasts, if such people exist in the first place.

Still, I think there are perfectly valid reasons for scientists and animal lovers to choose their favorite species the way they do. Take E.O. Wilson, for instance. When he was a boy he suffered an unfortunate accident involving a needlefish and its close proximity to his eyeball which left him blind in one eye. Naturally this would put anyone off the study of fish, and Wilson’s passion for ornithology was rather nixed when partial deafness set in during his adolescence. (It’s kind of hard to find birds when you can’t see them because your depth perception is screwed up and you also can’t hear them laughing at you from their treetop perches.) He turned instead to entomology and became the world’s foremost expert on ants and a pioneer in the study of insect sociobiology, among other things. And all because birds weren’t an option.

This slightly laborious story is all in aid of explaining why I myself tended toward the study of rather large animals: because it’s difficult to study something you can’t see. In school I took an interest in ungulates — wild horses specifically, but also elk and moose and bighorn sheep and generally just anything with hooves because I find them kind of marvelous — mostly because they’re awesome but also, in part, because it’s easier to study something when you can actually see it. Despite an early interest in birds — no doubt springing from my early obsession with dinosaurs — I always knew that I was never going to be an ornithologist, or even a hobbyist birder, because while other, normal people would point to the sky or a tree or whatever and delightedly exclaim over some bird they saw there, I could only squint, perplexed, seeing nothing and wondering whether they were just messing with me. My own childhood brush with blindness was not — thank you nature — courtesy of a needlefish; rather, I was mysteriously struck blind and, after a period of time spent calmly baffling medical professionals, I just as mysteriously regained my sight. This episode was, apparently, as damaging to my eyes as you might expect, and it’s the reason that today I’m not the sort of person you’d want to join your badminton team. Without my glasses, I can see things fairly clearly at a distance of about six inches from my face; beyond that, it’s all impressionist painters. With my glasses, I’m at least legal to drive, but if you expect me to help you read street signs from a distance, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Of course, I’m not a big believer in limiting myself based on things like reality, which is why after I got a membership to Red Butte Garden here in Salt Lake and discovered that this meant I could do things like free birding walks, I was all over it. A nice walk in the garden with my trusty camera and a bunch of other people who have nothing better to do on a Saturday morning? SIGN ME UP. Oh, and please capture the birds so you can hold them very close to my face.

Now that I have been birding, of course, I am extremely knowledgeable. This is a… uh… Blue-Headed… Something.

Apparently hummingbirds like to hang around right at the very tops of pine trees. Who knew?

The nice thing about birding when you are not even remotely a birder is that you get to be delighted by things you probably shouldn’t be delighted by, like this robin who apparently is also a tradesman of some kind, judging by the way he’s building things. Around the fifth time everyone stops to see what you’re photographing, only to find it’s a bee or a robin or a flower, they finally realize you’re an idiot and stop paying you any mind at all. It’s only a shame it takes them so long.

This next animal proved to be a testament to my fellow birders’ kindness and patience toward their fellow man. The conversation with one kind soul in particular went something like this:

Me: I don’t see it. Where is it?
Her: Okay, do you see that sort of bare area in the middle of the tree, where you can see through to the trunk and there aren’t any leaves?
Me: Yes…
Her: Focus on that, then go directly to your right. He’s on that main branch, right out in the open. Really easy to spot.
Me: ….
Her: He’s bright yellow.
Me: Er….
Her: Okay. Do you see the bare area on the tree?

We went on like that for a good five minutes until the bird himself, clearly exasperated, relocated himself essentially to the front and center of the tree, offering us a fantastic view of his yellowness, at which point it took me probably another five minutes to finally see him. I told my long-suffering new friend that obviously I hadn’t been able to see him, there are leaves on that tree bigger than that bird. And he’s more creamy than bright yellow. I mean, seriously. He looks like a delicious well-toasted marshmallow, is what he looks like.

I was going to declare a moratorium on trying to spot any bird smaller than a pelican, but then this guy flew right in front of me, like he was trying to help a girl out. Thanks, angry-looking eyebrows bird.

FINALLY, some birds I can actually see. And as an added bonus, they’re cute and fluffy. You’re a pal, momma duck.

We saw several more birds at a distance, which for me personally was not very helpful, but whatever. This one looked like maybe a finch to me, which I only guessed because I’d seen Darwin’s sketches of course, but I was assured that it was not, in fact, a finch. I have no idea what it is. I hope you weren’t expecting this anecdote to end with some sort of useful information.

My favorites were the most obvious birds, like this quail, because at least on those occasions I could name the bird and indulge for one brief moment in a magical fantasy-land where I wasn’t completely clueless.

Of course, just because I had no idea what I was talking about and indeed no real idea of what I was even doing there among those very enthusiastic and keen-eyed birders, didn’t mean I was outside the reach of good fortune. While the rest of our company were gazing through their binoculars at some distant thing that as far as I could tell was a pinecone on top of a shrub, I wandered off a short distance down a side path to take some more pictures of flowers, as you do, and then I heard that tell-tale hum and turned around to see this kind gentleman stopping for a snack about two feet away from me.

Hummingbird, you are an officer and a gentleman. Or at least you would be, if it were possible to be those things while also being a bird.

Sure, he might’ve been super-tiny, but at least he recognized my handicap and got right up close… I actually had to step back to put him in focus with my zoom lens on. I might be a frustratingly awful birder — in fact, I think I might take up an interest in elephants, mostly because in order to study something bigger like blue whales I’d have to go into the sea and there are jellyfish in there — but every now and again, at least, fortune chooses to smile on me.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, with more photos from Red Butte Garden, this time with flowers and bees and… well, that’s pretty much it actually. Flowers and bees. But both of those are pretty much rad.

A Walk Through Dimple Dell Nature Park

Recently I took my dog Trudeau on an excursion to Dimple Dell Nature Park in Sandy, Utah. This adventure was extensively researched and pre-planned, by which I mean that I was looking for directions to somewhere else on Google Maps and found myself wondering what that big block of green was over there and whether it might be of some use to me in attempting to exhaust my dog, and so I decided to take him there completely on impulse.

Exhausting my dog is, in fact, something of a personal mission of mine. It never works out — he always out-staminas me, the bastard — but he likes to allow me my illusions and I find it diverting to seek out new adventures on his behalf. Because it was raining off and on even in the valleys that day, there was no way that I was going to attempt any mountain trails, but Dimple Dell looked promising, since according to the maps it ran right through the middle of residential areas. Our duties discharged and errands run, we drove on toward the trailhead (well I say we, but I was driving, because no matter how much he begs I am not going to give Trudeau the keys). The Granite Park Trailhead was surprisingly easy to find, and from there we had plenty of options, with several small dirt tracks branching off directly from the trailhead and a single large, well-maintained, woodchipped path which soon revealed itself by way of signage to be the North Rim trail. Figuring that it would be very difficult for me to get lost on such an expanse of trail (difficult but not impossible, because it is me we’re talking about here), we stuck primarily to the North Rim trail.

Although the wood chips undoubtedly make for a nice dry trail even on wet days, I found the footing far too spongey to be comfortable — it’s just enough like walking on a sand dune to tire you out. Trudeau had no such qualms, but he also spent most of the walk sniffing things, peeing on things, and trying to engage other dogs in fisticuffs, so he probably wasn’t paying much attention to the footing.

Dimple Dell is an on-leash park, but Trudeau makes a hobby out of breaking the rules, because he is a rebel. And I only took his leash off long enough to snap a photo, because he is also kind of a dick.

Despite the fact that Dimple Dell is apparently 644 acres in total, the sections of trail that we covered felt more like a neighborhood park than a wilderness trail. The trail truly does run through neighborhoods and often winds along the back fences of houses, which is not always a pleasant experience when there are dogs in there and you have Trudeau along, because as mentioned previously, Trudeau is kind of a dick.

Still, the walk was quite pleasant, with some beautiful views of the very close Wasatch range, and more distant views of the Oquirrhs.

We didn’t spot much in the way of wildlife, unless you count lichen…

I don’t even know if this is actually lichen, I just like to say “lichen”.

…and a few scrub jays, which insisted on staying just far enough away that I could barely get a decent photo, even with my longest zoom.

Come over here bird, I just want to be your friend. Trudeau might try to eat you, though. He tries to eat everything.

There was also a dog in a backyard, which I heard but never actually saw, which made a growling sound that was eerily similar to that of a mountain lion and which nearly gave me a heart attack. Oh and also a few kids in a backyard, one of whom leaned over his back fence and shouted to his friends for a good five minutes, “DEER POOP! THERE’S DEER POOP BACK HERE! HEY YOU GUYS, I FOUND SOME DEER POOP!” So one must assume that there are occasionally also deer, but I never saw any. Nor their poop, for that matter.

All in all, it was an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon, and it warmed up enough that I wished I had in fact pre-planned (water would’ve been a good idea) and Trudeau almost seemed a little tired by the time we got back to the trailhead. We could probably spend weeks covering all of the trails in Dimple Dell, which branched out like spiderwebs along the ridgelines and valleys, but since we don’t live in that area — and I prefer more well-packed trails — we probably won’t be frequent visitors, no matter how attractive the lichen is.

[Edit: WOOHOO, thanks WordPress for Freshly Pressing this entry, and thanks to everyone for visiting! If you’d like to read more on what it’s like to live in Utah and how it can turn you into a homicidal maniac, you might also be interested in one of my most recent entries, It’s Just Like the Road Warrior, Only with Minivans. I hope you’ll stick around and read a bit more!]

Excuse me, my good sir or madam, would you like to see a bald eagle?

I’m walking my dog in the park. It’s nearly dark already — slept away my weekend again, second verse same as the first — and the streetlamps have just come on. A pair of men pass on the sidewalk, going in the opposite direction, and I smile and nod absently; it sounds like they’re speaking Russian to each other, but I’m not really listening; in my earbuds, The Tragically Hip are singing, Twenty years for nothing, well that’s nothing new; besides, no one’s interested in something you didn’t do. The cold is getting sharper quickly as the last of the light leeches away. I shouldn’t have spent those ten minutes standing at the park’s north end, watching a murder of crows wheeling overhead, squabbling amongst themselves about who would be perching next to whom in the branches of the single bare tree that they’d all decided to cram themselves into. (It was like watching children fight over who sat where at the lunch table, but their wings were outstretched so beautifully against the gray sky and they tumbled so easily through the air, like leaves caught up together in a whirlwind.)

Behind me, one of the men says in English, “Oh, I should tell her. Excuse me, miss!”

I turn around. There’s no one else about that he might be addressing, and sure enough he’s walking back toward me, while his friend hangs back, looking a bit embarrassed.

“Excuse me, miss,” the fellow says. “Would you like to see a bald eagle?”

Beside me, my dog sits down, like he’s too puzzled by the question to remain standing and needs to sit and think on it awhile. I picture him smoking a pipe with a perplexed expression on his face, and make a mental note to Photoshop that later. My brain also conjures up a few helpful suggestions: Decline offer if said bald eagle is in his van. Decline offer if “bald eagle” is nickname for something in his pants. I imagine the side of a van with “free candy” crudely crossed out and “free bald eagles!!!” spraypainted over the top, and I have to admit that were this the case, I would at least have to applaud his originality.

Considering and subsequently discarding several witty rejoinders, I eventually settle for saying, “Um?” I’m fairly certain my mouth is hanging open, and my dog Trudeau and I are probably wearing matching expressions of eyebrow-raising confusion.

The man seems to pick up on this. “I’m telling everyone,” he says reassuringly, which isn’t actually reassuring at all. I still haven’t even the faintest of ideas what in the hell he’s talking about, and I’m not sure what “everyone” he could be talking about, unless he’s been chasing down joggers on the footpaths clear on the other side of the park’s loop road. I wouldn’t be any more surprised by that than I am by the whole conversation.

He points up into a cluster of bare trees that stand inside the aviary fence, and says, “Look up there, in the branches of the bare tree. Can you see it?”

I can’t help but think that this is like that part in a fight scene when somebody says, “Look, it’s bigfoot!” or “Wow, naked ladies!” and distracts their opponent long enough to knock them unconscious. I’m putting my back to the guy’s buddy by peering into the trees, but whatever; if this elaborate ruse is all in aid of a mugging, then I say they’ve earned the contents of my wallet ($7 in cash and a maxed out food stamp card; suck on that, muggers), and besides, I’m pretty certain that Trudeau will avenge me. I mean, unless these guys are prepared with dog cookies in which case Trudeau can probably be bought, the traitorous bastard.

The point being, I turn and look up at the tree — trees, because “the bare tree” isn’t very descriptive when there are like ten of them right there — and I squint and curse my eyes, and I don’t see a single damned thing. (My conservation biology teacher in college used to mournfully lament that people were only interested in the “charismatic megafauna”… animals like lions and elephants and pandas and whatever, the ones you see lots of nature documentaries about. I argued that I was rather restricted to a study of large animals because my eyes are so bad I’d never be taking up birdwatching.)

“You see it?” the guy says again, and he’s so earnest that I tell him yeah, I do, that’s so cool, even though it takes another ten seconds before I actually spot it, because I really don’t want this to turn into a truly awkward moment where he tries somehow even harder to share his birding discovery with me. I do see it now though, a hunch-shouldered shape huddled on the farthest branch, looking down into the aviary like it’s deigned to come and visit its stranger relations.

“That’s awesome,” I say, and Trudeau sighs because he hasn’t the slightest interest in birds (he has a much keener preference for squirrels).

“It’s visiting from the wild,” the guy tells me, proud and earnest, like the eagle is here on his personal invitation, just to give him the opportunity to interact with strangers. “It’s not part of the aviary.”

“Yeah,” I agree, because come on, obviously. Ticket sales would probably go down if their own birds were free to perch high above the aviary and fly away on a whim. “Thanks,” I tell him again, which is actually another way of saying, Yes I see, please go away now because you are making this awkward.

He seems to pick up on the unspoken social signal, and finally rejoins his friend, leaving Trudeau and I to continue on our way, though we don’t go far, just to where the view improves. I’m grateful to the gentleman, strange as the exchange was, for pointing the bird out, and grateful even moreso that he left us alone to enjoy the sight. The eagle is a splendid, large adult, and its perch is just high enough that I’m wishing for binoculars and just low enough that still, even with my poor eyesight, I can see that while I’m standing there looking up, the bird is looking back down. We’re both caught in the pool of light cast by a nearby lamp post, and it makes the white feathers on the bird’s head shine with a particular brilliance.

The eagle doesn’t do anything in particular, just sits and stares, but just its presence makes something stir in my chest, some weak thing fluttering inside my ribcage, the beating of phantom wings against my heart a reminder that even a little piece of the wilderness can make us feel just a little more alive.

After awhile, the eagle turns its head again, apparently bored with its view of us, and the deepening darkness gathers in against its brown body like the evening itself has also chosen to roost on that branch. We continue on — reluctantly, in my case, and quite eagerly in Trudeau’s, as I think he still had hope for a squirrel sighting — and though I keep my eyes peeled for other intrepid park-goers to share the discovery with, none are forthcoming. And while I wouldn’t mind sharing this sight with someone else — I’ve no doubt it would be just as wonderfully random and awkward as it was for me — I’m not quite mad enough to go running after the joggers.

Featured Creature Friday: Crafty Crows, Agricultural Ants, and Pyro Bonobos

When I was a kid, I remember reading dated books about natural human history that showed early human ancestors (typically clad in Flintstones-style approximations of what I can only assume were sabertoothed tiger skins), and they explained the process of our evolution, and what forces had contributed to our eventual rise to true civilization (which at the time meant listening to Phil Collins and wearing stirrup pants and jellies.)

Our large brains separated us from the animals, we were told. We learned to create and use tools. To farm and keep livestock. To harness fire. We were convinced that all of this made us better than the beasts.

Of course, in the time since then, we’ve learned that there are animals that do all of those things too. They just haven’t taken it that one step further by building monster trucks, synthesizing bovine growth hormone, or inventing nuclear weapons, all of which truly makes us superior to the dumb beasts of the world.

Still, you have to give the animals credit for being just ridiculously clever, so let’s take a look at a few of them and boggle together at how much smarter they appear to be than we are. They’re at least out there making their way in the world, pulling themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, instead of sitting around at home and watching Jersey Shore.

Art by John Gerrard Keulemans, in the public domain

The Toolsmiths: New Caledonian Crows

We all know that many birds are kind of ridiculously intelligent. They’ve been observed doing things like dropping turtles from great heights to break their shells, or using the tires of passing cars to crack open nutshells. Birds have been shown to show some ability for counting, problem-solving, deception, pre-planning, operating  and incredible skills of dancing. And although many birds have a demonstrated ability to use tools, the current master toolsmith of the bird world is the New Caledonian Crow of New Zealand. These birds have been shown to not only use tools but also to create them, and to use one tool to acquire another tool to acquire another tool to get to a food source. Here’s a TED talk from a fellow who built a crow vending machine, where they could exchange coins for peanuts. (I can only assume that this gentleman is now both very rich and also a regular at his bank’s coin-counting machine.)

http://ted.com/talks/view/id/261

The Farmers: The Herding Ants

There are actually a surprising number of animals that actively engage in farming. Termite mounds are essentially giant terrariums designed to create optimum conditions for the fungus they like to eat. You might think Leaf-Cutter Ants cut leaves so they can eat them, but actually they’re creating compost for growing their own fungus farms. Ambrosia Beetles grow their fungus farms in trees, while Marsh Snails use their tongues to slice into cordgrass, creating a perfect environment for the fungi they prefer to feast on. Even the oceanic creatures get in on the action: spotted jellyfish are their own living greenhouses, and make use of photosynthesis and their own transparent skins to help them create a rich fungal crop inside their own bodies. (I’m beginning to sense that animals love fungi.) Damselfish, meanwhile, grow algae and are as aggressively protective as a farmer with a shotgun… plus, the algae they prefer are a bit wimpy, and probably wouldn’t really survive without cultivation. If you’ve ever read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, that may sound like a familiar story.

But I was going to talk about ants. Ants are particularly interesting because they don’t raise mere crops like the rest of their fungus-loving friends. They actually farm livestock. Several species of ants keep herds of aphids, which they “milk” for their excrement, “honeydew,” which is extremely sugary. (Before you start judging the ants, remember that humans make a common practice of not only eating all sorts of animal meat but also their mammary secretions and in the case of birds, the byproducts of their menstrual cycle.) The relationship between ants and aphids directly mirrors that between humans and our own livestock animals. The ants get to enjoy good nutrition and delicious treats, plus an extremely reliable food source. They relocate their herds to better grazing when necessary, defend them from predators, clean up their waste (which would otherwise attract unwanted visitors), keep them out of the weather, and even help them reproduce by sheltering, protecting and nurturing their larvae.

New research also suggests that humans aren’t the only ones to use pharmaceuticals on our livestock, or to physically modify them the same way we might castrate calves or dock a lamb’s tail. The ants sometimes nip off the adult aphids’ wings so they can’t fly about on their own. A new study suggests that chemicals the ants track around on their feet may serve as some sort of signal or actual tranquilizer for the aphids.

The Firestarters: Bonobo Apes

Okay, this one’s a little bit of a cheat, but you’re going to love it anyway. This TED talk shows video of bonobos starting a fire, driving a golf cart, playing musical instruments, inventing new uses for tools, and playing Pac-Man. Yeah, you heard me. They weren’t taught these things as tricks, but basically the behaviors were modeled for them, and they picked them right up and started experimenting for themselves.

So I guess we’re just not as special as we thought we were, nor are animals quite the dumb beasts that they’ve been made out to be… and we’d better be careful, because we’ve taught them how to start fires. I’m just saying.