We all know the animal kingdom is a horrible place, filled with brutal murder, aggressive mating practices, debilitating parasites – the list goes on. But it doesn’t stop there.
Delve a little deeper and you start to find some really messed up behaviours that you thought were reserved only for the most despicable of human minds, those that certainly won’t make it onto your Monday night watershed David Attenborough documentary. Betrayal, child sacrifice, slavery, you name it. Here are some of those rare, unknown behaviours that animals have been observed doing when they thought no one was watching.
In many human cultures it's customary to provide a gift before attempting to court a female. Some lightly scented bath salts, colourful flowers or the heads of her enemies are usually favourable. This gift-giving has also been documented in a number of insect and arthropod species: known as a nuptial gift, it can be anything from food to a large dollop of sperm. Yummy.
A species of gentleman spider likes to even gift wrap their presents in delightful silk package. This offers them a handy advantage. Firstly, the silk helps to stop the selfish female from stealing it, and secondly, as she begins to unwrap it, it allows time for the male to put on some Barry White and attempt to mate with her. As she’s slowly unwrapping the gift, content with her station in the world as she gets food delivered to her along with sexy time, something seems up. “What is this wrapped in the silk?” she says. “A seed! That bastard Terry, I knew he wasn’t to be trusted.” And as she turns around to give him an earful he’s gone into the night.
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Scientists published their findings on the matter in the journal BioMed Central and report: “Males usually offer an insect prey wrapped in silk; however, worthless gifts containing inedible items are reported...males that offered worthless gifts acquired similar mating success as males offering nutritional gifts, while males with no gift experienced reduced mating success.” Dastardly males that employ this trickery avoid expending energy on finding a real gift and can also reuse the gift to dupe another female, in turn, leaving an entire population of female spiders hungry, unsatisfied and in dire need of a post copulatory spooning session.
Did you ever used to play tag in school and stay close to the fat kid so that you could run slightly faster than him and not get caught? It is a modern day example of natural selection. Scientists have recently observed a species of fish, the twospot astyanax (Astyanax bimaculatus), that employs a similar tactic by picking on a friend. Researchers simulated scenarios of predators attacking the fish using a replica predator fish, a larger fish ambushing them from a hiding place and a heron pecking at the fish from above the water.
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They found that the threat of a replica predator caused some of the fish to turn on a member of the group, chasing and biting it until it said “fuck this” and separated itself from the shoal. This only happened in the situation with a larger fish predator present and not with the ambush predator or heron. According to a report from New Scientist, "birds and ambush predators do not target weaker members of the shoal: they just go for whichever astyanax is closest. So in these situations, it would not benefit the astyanax to attack one of their number”.
Essentially, when a predator is around, the astyanax will pick a member of the shoal to sacrifice to ensure protection from being eaten. An example of a true dick-move.
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It's a little disheartening when we humans are going through a dry patch in the bedroom department. Luckily for us fleshbags, we have the deep dark recesses of the internet to fulfil our guilty pleasures. Members of the animal kingdom, though, aren’t as fortunate. Fur seals for example, when their frustrations get the better of them, have turned to their unwilling king penguin neighbours to satiate their pleasure.
Scientists detail some interesting activities in Polar Biology, having spotted "three new occurrences of the sexual coercion of king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) by Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) on sub-Antarctic Marion Island. These recurrent observations follow a common pattern where the seal chases, captures and mounts the penguin, followed by copulation attempts”. They noted this strange behaviour on three separate occasions, with one ending in the seal killing the penguin (as if things couldn’t get worse for the poor creature). There doesn’t seem to be an explanation for the strange behaviour as of yet, but it’s still worrying nonetheless. Here’s a video if you’re in to that sort of thing.
Keeping Live Meals
Many animals like to store food such as fruit, nuts and tins of spam for those hard winter months. However, very little has been recorded about animals keeping live food for a later date. On the Moroccan island of Mogador, scientists have observed some unusual behaviour from the falcons that hunt there which bucks the usual trend.
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Instead of eating recently captured birds, they have been seen removing tail and wing feathers that are essential for flying, and leaving their prey helpless and unable to escape. They then go one step further by trapping the poor birds in the holes and cracks in rocks around the island. New Scientist states that “crippling and imprisoning prey might be a means of keeping fresh food nearby, so parents can stay on the nest and still have snacks nearby to feed hungry offspring”.
I just feel sorry for the poor prisoner having to sit there and contemplate the grizzly end coming to meet her, regretting working so hard in life, not travelling the world and settling for David even though she knew he didn’t truly love her.
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A prairie dog is one of those slightly rotund mammals you can watch on YouTube, eating something far too big for its mouth, all the while being super cute and hilarious. And while small chubby mammals are generally adorable, out in the wilderness it’s a different story.
Ultimately, even if another species isn’t trying to eat you, they can still be detrimental to your survival: eating your food, invading your space, calling you names and ruining your self-esteem. Prairie dogs live alongside ground squirrels and are in direct competition with each other for food and territory. So what do you do when a rival gang is invading on your turf? You go tell them who’s boss.
Adult prairie dogs have been observed chasing down baby ground squirrels, catching them, shaking them around violently and biting the back of their necks to sever their spinal column. This act of violence is the first recorded case of a herbivorous mammal attacking and killing another mammal species. Why do they do this?
Researchers report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, “Results from a 6-year study in Colorado, USA, revealed that interspecific killing of ground squirrels by prairie dogs was common, involving 47 different killers; 19 prairie dogs were serial killers in the same or consecutive years, and 30% of female prairie dogs killed at least one ground squirrel over their lifetimes. Females that killed ground squirrels had significantly higher annual and lifetime fitness than non-killers, probably because of decreased interspecific competition for vegetation”.
Fewer squirrels means more food and more space for prairie dogs which resulted in larger litters and a better survival rate, showing that their tactic, however bad it is, is working. Sorry kids but it isn’t a Disney movie with all the furry critters getting along like best friends. This is nature, and damn she scary.
The Everglades wetlands of Florida are littered with colonies of nesting birds hidden within the trees and branches that hang over the waters. Researchers began to notice alligators hanging out underneath these nests, but with the nests well out of the way and impossible to reach, what did the alligators gain from this? The researchers decided to catch a few gators and collect some data on them.
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They found that these ravenous reptiles were much better-fed compared to alligators not hanging around colonies. It turns out they were so well fed because of mother birds rejecting chicks from their nests and throwing them into the water, providing gators with a steady influx of food.
It wasn’t just the gators that benefitted from this sacrifice though. Because of this ‘payment’ of chicks, the gators hang around and act as a bodyguard for the area, providing protection by scaring off racoons and other predators that will eat bird eggs. Is this a conscious arrangement? Any reputable scientist would tell you obviously not, but can they prove that it isn’t? And there we have it people, two species benefiting from an arrangement of child sacrifice.
What often happens in the animal kingdom is the larger alpha males of the species are dominant and keep all the females for themselves. The smaller males of the species, often referred to in the scientific literature as ‘the nerds’ are left having to use brains instead of brawn to secure a bit of the old rough and tumble.
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For one cuttlefish species, the smaller males have come up with an ingenious way to use their crazy disco skin to dupe their fellow males and find themselves a lady. Nature reports: “single males can adopt a sophisticated feminine disguise to help them get near females that are guarded by large males...To be convincing, the mimic has to take on a mottled colouring, hide some of his arms and alter the shape of the visible on...They found that in 30 out of 62 attempts, the mimics deceived the guard male and got close to females...The researchers used DNA fingerprinting to show that two of the mimics succeeded in making a female pregnant.”
Those two mimics are considered heroes in the cuttlefish community. I can picture the scene now. The alpha male rubbing his two tentacles together and grinning. He can’t believe his luck as he is tricked into thinking he now has two ladies instead of one. Imagine his face nine months down the line and his alleged babies start to pop out and they all look like that dweeb Nigel from down the road. Well played Nigel. (Yes, I realise most of the science is wrong in that last sentence)
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A number of species of ant use an effective tactic to keep their hives running smoothly. Dubbed ‘slave maker’ ants, they will raid the nest of closely related ant species, stealing their young and bringing them back to the nest for a life of servitude. From here the stolen larvae will grow up and be put to work in their new home, helping to rear the parasite brood, feed and groom the parasite workers, defend the nest, and even participate in raids, eventually forcing their own relatives into slavery as well.
The slaves will work in the colony for their whole lives not knowing any better. The reason why they don’t walk out? Ant communication is based on smell, and young ants learn the particular smells of their relatives and the colony early on in life. So when they are stolen, especially by a closely related species, they are imprinted on early and assume the new colony is their own. The ultimate crime.