Eating like animals
A part of growing up is learning how to eat, but mealtime etiquette can be a tricky business. From culture to culture, there are a range of elaborate rules that apply. For example, in China, leaving some food on the plate is a sign of politeness. While, the same gesture in Southern Italy may be seen as a grave insult. These rules govern everything from the timing and order dishes to whether we use cutlery or go at it with your hands. Getting it right is important – lest we be accused of eating like animals!
But how do animals eat exactly? Well, as with all aspects of animal behaviour, the diversity of eating habits displayed by species is enormous. Inspired by the hilarious (but not particularly informative!) MisterEpicMann video, we’ve picked a handful of the most fascinating ways creatures get their fill!
We know all too well about mosquitoes and their haematophagic habits. However, did you know that it’s only the females that feed on blood? And they don’t exclusively pick on us – they suck the blood of other mammals, birds, reptiles and even frogs. Beside blood, both males and females feed on a wide variety of nectar and plant juices.
When female mosquitoes are in search of a bloody meal, they detect a source using movement, odour, carbon dioxide, and body heat. After landing on the host, mosquitoes probe the skin and inject saliva with their proboscis. This saliva contains chemicals which thin the blood, making it easier to suck up. The chemicals also numb the skin and lubricate the area to allow the proboscis to penetrate deeper and without detection.
This unassuming little member of the passerine family, and relative of the house sparrow, has a surprisingly ambitious diet. Loggerhead shrikes mainly eat insects, but can also consume reptiles, amphibians, small rodents, bats and other birds! Measuring just 20 cm from bill to tail and weighing an average 50 g, they have a remarkably light build to be targeting such large prey.
So how do they do it? Shrikes have developed extraordinary adaptations to help them hunt. Although they lack the powerful talons of a bird of prey, they have strong, hooked beaks, which are capable of cutting the necks of smaller animals. They tend to stalk their prey by hawking and diving from above. Incredibly, larger prey are taken down by impaling them onto sharp objects, such as thorns or barbed wire. Young shrikes are able to hunt with this method before they’ve even seen their parents do it, which suggests that this specialist behaviour is instinctive rather than learnt.
The striated frogfish, also known as the hairy frogfish, is equally atypical. These are fish with a body that is plump and unstreamlined. They don’t even have scales! Instead, they have soft skin covered with rough, irregular spinules. And this shaggy appearance is the perfect disguise, passing for an algae-covered rock on the seabed. Frogfish are renowned for their mimicry, which includes the ability to change colour. Mimicry serves a double purpose. It ensures that they are not only kept safe from predators, but also concealed from potential prey.
Besides this, as with all anglerfish, they are equipped with a dorsal spine that acts as an in-built fishing rod. On the end of this protruding spine they have an esca, which is a worm-like lure. They shake the esca around to attract their prey, while keeping the rest of their body completely motionless. Then, when the right-sized fish comes by they strike! They open their jaws wide and this increases the size of their mouth cavity. A partial vacuum is created and the prey is sucked into their mouths along with the water. All this happens in as little as 6 milliseconds!
This powerful predator might seem an obvious choice, but there’s more to a crocodile’s feeding habits than meets the eye. They are formidable ambush hunters, staying still and barely visible beneath the surface of the water until it’s time to strike. Although fish is their primary food source, they are opportunistic hunters and will prey on almost any animal that come within snapping distance. This can include buffalo, deer and wild boar, as well as young giraffes, elephants and other crocodiles. Saltwater crocodiles have even been observed taking down sharks!
No matter the size of their targets, they are killed with the same characteristic efficiency. Crocodile jaws are incredibly strong and are lined with 80 teeth, which can be replaced up to 50 times during their lifetime. Once the animal is in its clutches, it is forced underwater and swiftly drowned. The real challenge for the crocodile is how to consume and digest these monumental meals. Crocodiles can’t chew. Instead they perform a so-called ‘death roll’, in which they latch onto the carcass and tear off large pieces. Interestingly, they are known to swallow stones, known as gastroliths, which help break down their food and speed up digestion. Even so, the process of digestion can take up to a week.
There is one other trick crocodiles have developed to deal with this challenge. Occasionally, they will drag the carcass underwater and leave it there to rot. As the meat decays, it softens and is easier for the crocodile to eat. In fact, scientists suggest that this behaviour has an additional benefit: a rotten carcass will attract scavengers, like turtles, crabs and other fresh snacks for the crocodile to feed on!