Of all the species in the world, the human can do the least magic with his/her body. We cannot fly, we swim very feebly and that, too, above water. We cannot change colour or texture, we cannot make ourselves pregnant, we don’t have switch on and off lights on our heads and we cannot see in the dark, nor can we control the colour or shape of our babies or even the sex and number…
Let&’s look at some fascinating things that other animals do:
The flatworm (Macrostomum hystrix) is the only animal known to inseminate itself in the head using a needle-like penis structure. In normal circumstances, two flatworms will battle each other over which one will inject its sperm through its sharp stylet into the other, but when a worm is alone it simply pokes itself in the head with its sharp needle and the eggs fertilise there.
Female stink bugs (Podisus maculiventris) can control the colour of the eggs they lay — from pale yellow to dark brown. When doing so on the upper surfaces of leaves, these bugs lay darker eggs; on the undersides of leaves, they produce lighter-hued eggs. This ability to selectively control egg colour could help stink bug mothers improve their offspring&’s chances of survival.
Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) emit signals that interfere with each other&’s hunting. Bats are 85 per cent less likely to catch prey when their competitors produced jamming signals that interfere with a rival&’s ability to home in on an insect during the final moments of attack. Human sonar/radar engineers have just invented jamming devices, but bats have been using them for 65 million years.
Maculinea caterpillars, that parasitise ant colonies, coax worker ants to feed them by mimicking the sounds made by queen ants. This gives the caterpillars priority feeding status within the ant colony.
When trying to escape flooding, ants join together to build rafts with their own bodies, placing their young larvae and pupa at the bottom of the formation. The queen ant is sequestered in the middle of the raft. This results in a relatively high survival rate for both worker ants and the brood. The larvae and pupae are buoyant and their fat helps buffer them against cold-water conditions.
The flying paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) achieves long gliding flights by slithering through the air as it flattens its body and widens its ribs into a semi-circular shape. The shape of the gliding snake&’s body maximises aerodynamic performance.
Chameleons change their colouring to avoid predation and to communicate with one another. Complex colour changes in the veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) are predictive of different behaviours. Chameleons with brighter stripes were more likely to start a fight, while those with brighter heads were more likely to defeat opponents.
Female sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus) often carry eggs fertilised by several different fathers in their two uteri. Only one shark emerges from each womb, however, which has grown big and strong by eating all of the other embryos.
The Chinese soft-shelled turtle (Pelodiscus sinens), which lives in salty marshes, excretes urea — a major component of urine — through its mouth. Only six per cent of the urea the turtles produce is excreted as urine from the kidneys and the single orifice used for waste matter and reproduction; the rest is expelled through the mouth where it mixes with salt water to become a urine-like liquid. The turtles avoid dehydration as a result of losing liquids through conventional urination. It also means they don’t have to replace lost fluids by drinking salty water, which would result in a toxic build up. Instead, they just gurgle some and spit.
Six-centimetre long Archer fish (Toxotes jaculatrix) spit out powerful and long jets of water to knock their prey from branches above the waterline of their mangrove habitats.
Honeybees don’t sting when their hives are threatened by insect intruders. They inflict a nasty bite on enemies. Using their tiny mandibles, the bees inject an anaesthetic, called 2-Heptanone that immediately paralyses pests, making it easier for the bees to eject them from the colony. The chemical acts as an anaesthetic that stuns the invaders for two minutes but does no lasting damage.
Blind cavefish (Astrobelus pholeter), found only in the dark, fast-flowing waters of caves, navigate with teeth protruding from the skin. These skin teeth, known as denticles, consist of a pulp cavity surrounded by dentine, and enamel, and are used for protection, cutting, reducing drag as the fish swim and feel their way around in the darkness and strong currents. The teeth sense the direction of water flow and distance from the bottom, and send that information to the brain.
California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) dive to depths of 300 metres and return to the surface swiftly without suffering decompression sickness, which can kill human divers if they ascend too quickly. The secret is that they collapse their lungs at around 225 metres and then re-expand again at the same level on the ascent. The air-processing alveoli — balloon-like structures of the respiratory tract that ferry air to the lungs — deplete, keeping nitrogen out of the bloodstream and ensuring that bubbles won’t form on the ascent. When the pressure decreases as the sea lion swims up, the oxygen in the upper airways expands into the lungs to ensure it doesn’t black out.
The vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis) leads a solitary life in the dark, oxygen-depleted waters 3,000 metres below the ocean surface. It has eight arms but no feeding tentacles. It has two retractable, thread-like filaments eight times its body length. These thin filaments hang vertically and catch falling matter — the remains of plankton and the discarded skeletons of crustaceans, fish scales, diatoms and faecal pellets. The filament is retrieved and the food is cleaned off.
The dung beetle can pull 1,141 times its own body weight. That is comparable to a 90-kg man pulling 10 school buses at once. The African dung beetle (scarabaeus satyrus) uses the Milky Way as a guide to steer its dung ball home.
The Bombardier beetle sprays a toxic fluid containing hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone from a gland. The liquid is released at 100° Celsius and causes a sensation of burning in contact with the skin. It can shoot 360° simultaneously all around it.
Can you do any of these things? And yet we feel superior.