The Garden City Telegram
4/5/2013
SOUTHWEST LIFE

Tricksters abound among the animal kingdom

Another April Fool's Day has come and gone, and just like in previous years, the zoo received a few calls asking for "Mr. Lyon" or "Mrs. Bear." The chance to play practical jokes on each other is just too much fun for some people to pass up! This also seems to be the case in the animal kingdom. However, where the animals are concerned, the jokes aren't designed for humor and are actually carefully calculated strategies that will hopefully increase their chance of survival.

Take, for instance, the classic animal fakers, such as the hognose snake and the opossum. Both of these animals are notorious for their habit of keeling over and "dying" when they are threatened. As you can imagine, this has some wonderful benefits! Not only will it confuse a predator, but many meat eaters prefer their dinner fresh, so if something is already dead, they will probably leave it alone.

The hognose snake is such a good actor that he will even flip over, stick out his tongue, and mess himself so he is smelly and gross. In fact, he is so convinced that this is what a dead snake looks like, that if something tried to turn him right-side-up, he would promptly flip onto his back again!

While we are on the topic of flipping over, the Asian fire-bellied toad loves to warn predators by showing off his belly. His dark green and black back help him blend in with his leafy surroundings, but if he feels threatened he will promptly bend his body backwards to display his bright orange/red belly (a behavior that is known as the "unken" reflex). These colors are a universal warning sign in the animal kingdom and conveys the message of "stay away, I taste bad" to whatever might be about.

Then there are the animals that are masters of disguise. Caterpillars are great at this! The caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly is an ugly mottled lump that closely resembles a glob of bird droppings. While lots of predators would love a tasty caterpillar, not many would be interested in a pile of bird poop.

The sphinx moth caterpillar takes a different approach by placing two large "eyes" on his rear end. These eyes are unsettling to would-be predators and are often enough to prevent a bird from making a meal of this juicy morsel.

However, predators can play this "I'm-not-what-I-seem" game as well. The angler fish which lives deep in the ocean has an appendage attached to the top of his head that is sometimes filled with bacteria and which emits an eerie light. The light attracts other creatures in the dark depths of the ocean and when they get close, the angler fish snatches them up with his sharp teeth.

The alligator snapping turtle uses a similar method to lure prey to its mouth by having a tongue that resembles a tiny red worm. The turtle will lay camouflaged on the bottom of a body of water and wiggle its tongue to make the worm seem alive. When a hungry fish comes to investigate, it soon finds that he, not the worm, is what's for dinner.

And lastly, there are two tricksters that live in Australia that like to do things their own way. Despite having fur and other characteristics that classify them as mammals, the duck-billed platypus and the spiny anteater both decided to be oddballs and lay eggs instead of giving live birth like all other mammals do.

The list of prank-pulling animals could go on and on. From birds that fake having a broken wing to lure predators away from their nest, to lizards that can break their tail off of their body, strange animals are all around us. At the zoo we have a few of these unusual animals as well. Jake, our Baird's tapir, looks like a cross between a hippo, elephant and a pig but is actually more closely related to horses and rhinos. And if the adult tapirs are odd, the youngsters are even stranger as they could take the prize in a watermelon look-alike contest.

Our sloth bears have been known to do a wonderful impression of a vacuum cleaner as they suck up food, and the hamerkops in the aviary feel the need every spring to build at least one nest that is big and strong enough to hold an adult person. Often the hamerkops will build multiple "decoy" nests to throw off would-be predators.

Yes, humans can have their moments of hilarity and we will continue to enjoy April 1 as a day to test our creativity and express our more comical side every year. But the real winners of the laugh-out-loud award can only go toward those who don't have to try to make others laugh and just seem to have been born with it: the wild and crazy animal world.

Visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.