Seven quirky reasons to celebrate World Wildlife Day.

By March 3, 2021Editorial

If you’ve ever had the good fortune to see an aye-aye in the wild, your impression of it would probably be of a dark, spiky-haired back disappearing into the pitch dark night of a Madagascan forest. A full frontal view, on the other hand, would leave you scratching your head at how such an improbable creature could ever have evolved. 

Most of us will have seen a clownfish backed into the wavy tentacles of sea anemone—on a television screen if not while snorkeling over a tropical reef—and have been told that the fish is immune to the anemone’s paralyzing venom. But you might not know that the dominant female fish you’re seeing was, a short while before, a male.

It’s World Wildlife Day. And yes, we must heed all the dire warnings about how fast the natural world is disappearing under our careless hands. However, I just thought it might be fun, and a gentle reminder of what a fascinating world we live in, to take a different look at a few of the less-celebrated African creatures inhabiting the sky, land, rivers, lakes, and ocean, and how beyond precious they are.

The camel’s nose

Dromedary camel © Shutterstock

There’s a Victorian fable in which an Arab miller lets a camel stick its nose into his bedroom, thinking that it’s not much to ask. But then come bits of the rest of him until the entire camel is inside the room. And then, predictably, refuses to leave. One telling of the story ends with the caution that, “It is a wise rule to resist the beginnings of evil.” Good advice possibly, but the beast’s nose is a truly wondrous thing, for it really is a most ingenious water and heat exchange system

The nasal structures are covered in mucous, enabling the nose to hydrate the air as the animal breathes in and dehydrate the air when it exhales. Remarkably this adaptation enables the camel to retain as must as 60 percent of its water. And that’s not all. Camel nostril technology has helped inspire the Sahara Desert Project, which aims to provide fresh water, food, and renewable energy in hot, arid regions, as well as re-vegetating areas of uninhabited desert. So next time a camel sticks its nose into your tent, show some respect.

Giraffes that hum

Giraffes © Shutterstock

I never knew that giraffes were musical. I always thought that apart from the odd snort of alarm, they were the savanna’s tall, silent ones. But no, giraffes can definitely hum. A researcher in an Austrian zoo picked up a weird low-frequency humming coming from the giraffe enclosures at night. It was just within in human hearing range. 

But why would the giraffes make this sound? Was it snoring, or maybe part of their dreaming? Giraffes are social creatures, and scientists have long puzzled over how they communicate, so maybe the humming is part of that puzzle? Could it be a way for them to communicate their positions at night when it’s dark and visibility is poor? I guess one day we’ll know for sure.

The aye-aye—all fingers and now a thumb as well.

Aye-aye, Wikimedia Commons

The aye-aye is truly weird. Genetics tell us that it is a lemur, which lumps them in with us as primates. The relationship, though, is distant, and even within the lemurs, the aye-aye is in a taxonomic family all of its own. There seems to be no end to its peculiarities. It has a squirrel-like tail, a skull not unlike that of a cat, the ears of a bat, great yellow-orange eyes, and teeth like a rodent’s that keep on growing. And it fills the ecological niche of a woodpecker.

We should treasure it for these attributes alone. But wait for it, that’s not all. The really fascinating aspect of the creature’s anatomy is its hands, each with long fingers, one of which is really, really thin as well. These are the key to its hunting success. The aye-aye taps on tree branches to echolocate grubs under the bark, then gnaws a small hole through which it hooks its meal using its thin but highly flexible finger.

Then, to cap it all, we’ve found that it has a sixth stubby digit—a thumb to help it grip the branches of its forest habitat.

Inspired by termites

Termite mound and cheetahs, Wikimedia Commons

Camels’ noses aren’t the only examples of nature’s cooling systems. Termites have had the ability to build mounds that move hot and cool air around for 130 million years. 

Some termites build open chimneys or vent holes into their mounds; others build enclosed mounds, while several species create tall, thin wedge-shaped structures. All have extensive networks of tunnels and conduits to pull fresh cool air into the mound and expel stale air out, in the process regulating temperature, humidity, and respiratory gas distribution. So remarkable is the system that the temperature inside the nest is maintained to within one degree of 87 degrees Fahrenheit day and night throughout the seasons.

The termite mound was the inspiration for the Eastgate Centre in Harare. Zimbabwean architect Mick Pearce and the engineering firm Arup borrowed from the insects to create a building that is more of an ecosystem than “a machine for living in.” A testament to their innovation is that Eastgate consumes less than 50 percent of the energy used in conventionally air-conditioned buildings while achieving very satisfactory comfort conditions for all but 2 weeks of the year.

Clownfish and their gender-fluid dynamics

Clownfish and sea anemone © Shutterstock

Clownfish were long known to be the beneficiaries of their association with sea anemones while giving little in return. But now we think that not to be the case. Clownfish actually do a wiggle dance that increases the seawater circulation around their sedentary hosts, and this helps the anemone to “breathe.”

But back to gender dynamics. Young clownfish are sexually inactive males. But then, within a group of clownfish, the largest individual matures not into a full-blown male, but a female! Then, the next most dominant male becomes fully mature and ready to breed. One advantage of this seemingly bizarre arrangement is that competition is avoided because the rest remain sexually inactive. In effect, the group then has an alpha male and female pair that then fulfill their breeding obligation. If the once male, but now alpha female, is unfortunate enough to get eaten or otherwise die, her male partner’s genetic code will make him the next fully productive female. This then triggers the next-in-line (inactive) male to step up to do his reproductive duty. It’s a strange arrangement, but it works…for clownfish.

Talking trees

Umbrella thorn acacia, Wikimedia Commons

Can trees talk? At least one person believes they do. Well, he is at least convinced that they can communicate.

 Peter Wohlleben is a German forester and author of the bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. And, before you’re tempted to pooh-pooh Wohlleben, the forward to his book is written by no less a scientist than Tim Flannery

Writing for the Smithsonian Magazine, Richard Grant gives a wonderful account of his meeting with this extraordinary naturalist. It is filled with intriguing notions of a “complicated web of relationships, alliances and kinship networks…all happening in the ultra-slow motion that is tree time.” And the science agrees: “Trees are far more alert, social, sophisticated—and even intelligent—than we thought.”

Grant also recounts Wohlleben’s favorite example: the umbrella thorn acacia of Africa’s hot savanna. Giraffes feed on the acacias, but the moment they do, the trees notice and immediately send out a distress signal in the form of ethylene gas. The tree’s neighbors react to the message and start pumping unpalatable and poisonous tannins into their leaves. In large enough quantities, these compounds can sicken or even kill large herbivores. In the wonderful way of evolution, giraffes are aware of this and browse into the wind—they “know that the trees are talking to one another.”

Whalehead, the extraordinary bird of Africa’s tropical wetlands

Shoebill © Shutterstock

The shoebill has many names, but all derive from its enormous, clog-like bill. Even its scientific name Balaeniceps rex translates as the “whale head king.” This great grey fisher was once classified as a stork, and certainly, it is very stork-like in its bearing and hunting style. But current genetic evidence places it with the pelicans. 

The shoebill haunts waterways and swamps from the Sudd of Sudan southwards to northeastern Zambia’s Bangweulu wetlands. Slow-moving with long motionless periods characterize these avian giants. But when they do strike at their prey, it is done with great spend and intent. 

Other than their size and formidable bills, there is not much by way of evolutionary intrigue to arrest one’s interest. But I think they are amazing, and that is enough in my book to warrant a place on this World Wildlife Day list. This and the fact that only 3,300 to 5,300 mature adults remain in the wild. And oh, they do have the rather disgusting habit of pooping down their legs to keep cool.