This selection is taken from The Book of Animal Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong:
Ants boggle the mind. In the jungles where three-quarters of them live, they teem 800 to the square yard, 2.4 billion to the square mile, and collectively weigh four times more than all the neighbouring mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians put together. The 12,000 named ant species come in all shapes and sizes: a colony of the smallest could live happily inside the brain-case of the largest. As with bees and termites, their success flows from their social organization, but there is nothing remotely cuddly about ants: they are the storm troopers of the insect world, their ruthlessly efficient colonies operating like a single superorganism
Polar bears aren’t white. Their skin is black, and their fur is translucent–their apparent whiteness is the result of light refracted from the clear strands.
Beavers have a greater impact on their surroundings than any creature other than humans. They build instinctively: put a young beaver in a cage and even without trees or running water, it still mimes the process of building a dam. They can chop down a tree with a six-inch diameter in less than an hour. Some scientists now think the disappearance of the Pennine forests and the creation of the Fens were due to the beavers that lived in Britain until the early thirteenth century (the town of Beverly in York-shire is named after them).
The most sophisticated form of communication other than human language is the work not of an ape but an insect. Honey-bees can tell one another the quality, distance, and precise location of a food source by a complex sequence of movements and vibrations called the waggle dance. And, unlike most of the dolphin or primate languages, we can actually understand what the bees are saying to each other (each waggle, for example, represents about 150 feet from the hive). The discovery of this in 1945 was enough to earn Karl von Frisch the only Nobel Prize ever awarded for the study of animal behaviour. More recent research has filled out the picture. Bees have a sense of time; being able to see in the ultraviolet range makes them more attracted to some flower colours and textures than others; they can learn by experience. They can even recognize human faces. Given that many humans struggle with this once they’ve turned forty, it seems utterly remarkable in creatures whose brain is the size of a pinhead. Yet bees who are rewarded with nectar when shown photographs of some faces, and not when shown others, quickly learn to tell the difference. Not that we should read too much into this. Bees don’t think in a meaningful way. There’s no small talk; they only ever communicate on two subjects: food and where they should set up the next hive. The faces in the experiment were clearly functioning as rather odd-looking flowers, not as people they wanted to get to know socially. Equally, a single bee, however smart, is severely limited in its appeal as a pet, when separated from its hive.
If diversity and adaptability are the measuring stick for success, then beetles are the most successful animals on the planet. There are 350,000 known species, with up to 8 million more out there waiting for names: new species are being discovered at an aver-age rate of one an hour. If you lined up all animal and plant species in a row, every fifth species would be a beetle. There are about 750,000,000,000,000,000 individual beetles going about their business right now.
Unlike most animals, none of the words for “butterfly” in European languages resemble one another: it is schmetterling in German; papillon in French; mariposa in Spanish; farfalla in Italian; borboleta in Portuguese; and vlinder in Dutch.
Cow farts are not destroying the world; unfortunately cow burps are. An average cow burps 600 pints of methane a day, and this is responsible for 4 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and a third of the U.K.’s. Livestock farming in general creates 18 percent of all man-made greenhouse gases—more than all the cars and other forms of transport on earth. Cows produce one pound of methane for every two pounds of meat they yield. Work is under way to produce a methane-reducing pill the size of a man’s fist, called a bolus, which would dissolve inside the cow over several months. Even so, cattle farming is costly. To make one pound of beef requires thirteen hundred square feet of land, six times as much as to produce the equivalent weight in eggs and forty times what it takes to grow a pound of spuds.
Today, there are nearly four hundred breeds of domestic dog but all belong to the same species: Canis familiaris. In theory, a two-pound Chihuahua only a couple of inches high can mate with a Great Dane more than three feet tall or a 150-pound Saint Bernard. The vast diversity of dogs is down to humans carefully selecting valuable inherited traits but often encouraging unusual ones such as dwarfism or lack of a tail that, in the wild, might prevent a dog surviving long enough to reproduce. Specialized hunting skills were especially sought after. Springer spaniels have the ability to “spring,” or startle, game. The dachshund’s sausage-like body enables it to pursue badgers into their burrows (“badger” is Dachs in German). Labrador retrievers were bred to retrieve fishing nets inNewfoundland. There are harehounds, elkhounds, and coonhounds; leopard dogs, kangaroo dogs, and bear dogs; there is even a sheep poodle. Poodles were originally used for duck hunting: the word comes from the German for “to splash in water.” But dogs are bred for all sorts of reasons. Louis Dobermann, a German night watchman, produced his namesake for watchdog purposes in the late 1800s. Toy varieties, such as the Pekingese, were raised in ancient China as “sleeve dogs”—kept inside the gowns of noble-women to keep them warm.
Ferrets are the only member of the weasel family to have been domesticated, and their popularity as pets is on the increase. On the face of it, this is surprising. Their scientific name, Mustela putorius furo, translates as “musk-bearing stinking thief,” although most of this infamy is inherited. Ferrets are tame European polecats (from poule chat, “poultry cat”), a creature so despised by farmers and gamekeepers that it was hunted, trapped, and gassed to near extinction across most of Britain during the nineteenth century. Also known as the foulmart or stinkmarten, the polecat was the scourge of henhouses, but also helped keep the rabbit and mouse population in check. When they were originally domesticated, more than two thou-sand years ago, it was to exploit this natural aptitude.
In Japan, foxes are sacred to the Shinto religion and “fox possession” is a recognized clinical condition. Symptoms include a craving for rice and an inability to make eye contact.
The Romans exhibited giraffes in their amphitheatres as “camelopards,” assuming they were a cross between camels and leopards.
The word tragedy comes from ancient Greek and means “goat-song.”
Gorillas are the strong, silent members of the ape family. They aren’t as vocal or as flashy with their skills as chimps, but they have better memories and often do things independently rather than simply for a reward. Koko, a female gorilla born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, has mastered more than a thousand words in sign language, and seems able to communicate complex emotions like sadness and even make jokes. She describes herself, touchingly, as “fine animal person gorilla.”
It’s often said that emperor penguins mate for life, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. While faithful for the breeding season and when the chick is being reared, at other times emperor penguins have much lower rates of fidelity than smaller species. At least 85 percent of emperor penguins cheat on their partners. They’re mostly straight, though, unlike Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo, who hit the news when they built a nest together, rejected any advances from females, and raised an egg. Silo eventually left Roy to pair up with a female named Scrappy and may well be the first documented case of an ex-gay or bisexual penguin.
Pigs are highly intelligent. Like dogs they can be easily house-broken, taught to fetch, and come to heel. Pigs can learn to dance, race, pull carts, and sniff out land mines. They can even be taught to play video games, pushing the joystick with their snouts, something that even chimps struggle to master. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “learned pigs,” dressed in natty waistcoats, amazed audiences with tricks. Pigs have even been put on trial and hanged for murder. Maybe it’s this intelligence that some people find unsettling. When a pig fixes you with its long-lashed, forward-facing eyes and sniffs you with its snout (which is two thousand times more sensitive than a human nose), a connection is made that goes well beyond the food chain.
A rat can swim for seventy-two hours nonstop. It can jump down fifty feet without injury. It can squeeze through a half-inch gap, leap three feet, climb vertical surfaces, and walk along ropes. It can survive longer than a camel without water. It will eat anything that’s edible and lots of thing that aren’t (lead sheeting, soft concrete, brick, wood, and aluminium). It reaches sexual maturity at three months. Rats have sex up to twenty times a day, and are extremely promiscuous: an in-heat female can have sex more than five hundred times with a barn-load of different males and produce twelve litters of twenty-two young each year. In short, rats are very, very hard to get rid of.
Only one in a hundred shark species attacks people. In 2005 there were just fifty-eight shark attacks reported worldwide. Only four people were killed. Wasps kill as many people in Britain every year, and jellyfish in the Philippines kill ten times as many. In the United States, both dogs and alligators kill more people than sharks. To put it another way, in an average year in New York there are sixteen hundred cases of people biting people. Sharks have far more reason to be scared of us. We kill at least seventy million a year for food (despite the fact that some shark flesh tastes of urine; both rock salmon and huss are sharks) and for their livers (which are used in haemorrhoid cream).
If spiders didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them; without them, we’d simply drown in insects. Until the late eighteenth century, we just assumed they were wingless insects, but they now have their own class, Arachnida, which contains forty thousand identified species, with as many again, waiting to be named. They were one of the earliest land animals to evolve and are predatory, territorial carnivores: put ten thousand spiders in a sealed room and you will eventually end up with a single fat spider. The mass of insects eaten by British spiders in a year outweighs theU.K.’s human population. And by “eat” we really mean drink: they dissolve their victims first.
It’s a bad idea to kill a wasp: dying wasps emit a pheromone that alerts its nest-mates to danger, so you may be surrounded within second.