The animal kingdom is full of examples of unique talents. They have evolved a whole host of defensive, predatory, and reproductive abilities that enable them to complete feats worthy of a super hero. The mighty rhinoceros beetle can lift objects that weight more than 850 times what they do. Meanwhile, the Peregrine falcon reaches speeds of up to 200 mph when in a dive. In many cases it has taken humanity thousands of years of technological developments to come close to what some species have been doing for millennia. Perhaps most fascinating is how many extremely different species have evolved very similar functions to improve their chances of survival.
Detecting Magnetic Fields
Many different species migrate or demonstrate and ability to navigate using elements such as smell, landmarks, the position of the sun and stars, and magnetic fields. Although people cannot sense magnetic fields, many animals can. The exact mechanism is unknown and does vary between species. Some species have been found to have magnetite in special organs which may make them more sensitive to the magnetic fields.
Animals known to use magnetic fields include sea turtles, trout, many bird species, butterflies, salamanders, bats, lobsters, and whales. Some of these animals travel thousands of miles every year as part of their migratory journey while others use it help make their way home while out hunting. Arctic terns may travel up to 80,000 km round trip per year. It has been demonstrated in some species, such as loggerhead turtles that disruption of the magnetic fields affects their ability to navigate.
Detecting Electric Fields
A number of different species can detect electric fields including sharks, rays, electric fish, all four species of echidna, the platypus, the Guiana dolphin, and bumblebees. Most of them use the electric fields to help them detect prey. Some species of fish, such as the mormyrids (elephant fishes) also use the electric fields to communicate with one another. They actually create electrical songs which allow them to differentiate between other mormyrid species when trying to find a mate.
The discovery that bumblebees use electric fields is a recent one (February, 2013). Although it has been known that pollen carries an electrical charge for quite some time, it was not known that bees actually used electric fields to locate flowers and differentiate between flower species. The electrical field of the flower is changed by the visiting bee and subsequent bumblebees can detect if a flower has already been visited by another bee.
Infrared Heat Wave Detection
Some species have developed thermosensitive pits that help them detect prey based on their infrared heat signals. The best known examples of this occur in pit vipers, boas, pythons, and vampire bats. The mechanism by which insects detect infrared heat waves is not known. However, bed bugs also make use of infrared to detect their prey. There are also three species of beetle that use this sense to locate recently burnt wood, which they use for egg laying. Some vespid and braconid wasps also have this sense although the exact function of them in uncertain at this time.
Many species have developed an ability to use sound waves in the same manner as we use light waves to assist in locating prey and navigation. Most of these animals live in deep water or caves where there are few visual cues. Although bats are probably the most famous of the species that use sonar and echolocation, it is also used by whales, dolphins, shrews and two species of cave-dwelling bird – the South American oilbird and swiftlet.
Perhaps some of the most amazing talents lie in the way different animals protect themselves from predators. They poison, spray, claw, suffocate, electrocute, and even explode to deter predators. Spraying the enemy with a noxious or toxic substance is an evolutionary favourite. The horned lizard actually increases the pressure in their sinus cavity until the blood vessels in their eyes burst, spraying blood at the adversary. Meanwhile, the hagfish secretes a suffocating slime that coats the predator in a fatal, fibrous mass of goo. He has to be careful that he doesn’t get caught in it himself though.
The Bombardier beetle will send a spray of boiling hot, toxic, anal fluids at potential predators. The terrible stench of skunk spray is also blinding if it hits the eyes. The opossum is a multi-talented individual that not only sprays noxious anal fluids, but also foams at the mouth and plays dead.
Poison is not limited to substances that get sprayed though. The potato bug covers his body in his own poisonous feces to deter predators. The sea cucumber literally turns itself inside out for enemies, sending digestive acids towards them at the same time. Add to that, the sea cucumber can control the solidity of his form, allowing him to squeeze through narrow openings before solidifying himself again.
Turning yourself inside out may seem extreme, at least until you meet the hairy frog. This amphibian actually breaks the bones in its legs so that cat-like claws protrude for defensive use. While it is unknown if they can retract these claws afterwards, it is clear that the hairy frog is more than willing to accept some pain as part of the defensive plan.
The electric eel simply turns on the current, up to 500 volts of current that is. That is more than enough current to seriously burn or even kill a human being.
The award for most unique method of predator disposal though goes to the Malaysian ant. Ants are well known for their social lifestyles. When a group of Malaysian ants is being attacked, some individuals will act as suicide bombers for the good of the rest of the colony. They do this by contracting their abdomens until poison glands that run the length of their bodies literally explode.
While the animal kingdom has a huge variety of talents, many of which humanity has spent years trying to recreate with technology. Most amazing though is how similar the talents are in species as diverse as insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. It’s beyond impressive.