When learning from animals, people need to understand how the animals relate to one another. All animals live in an ecological system, where they have a role. Some are keystone species such as Alligator, who makes ‘gator holes’ which provides food and homes for other animals. Others animals contribute positively to the places they live. Stag Beetle eats dead trees to make soil. “Negative” animals such as Leeches have a role, too. They kill their host and help keep the animal population in balance.
Meanwhile, some animals ignore each other, and others compete for the same food. More importantly, many animals form special relationships. Some are allies, and still others are in predator–prey relationships. Wolf and Coyote compete for Beaver, while Ratel and Honeyguide look for Bees together. Plover picks off Leeches from Crocodile’s gums. Great White Shark pursues Elephant Seal but is prey to Orca (Killer Whale). Animal relationships are indeed complex and varied.
A system usually becomes out of balance when people interfere. When Grey Wolf disappeared from the North Woods, Elk proliferated, eating cottonwood shoots that grew on stream banks. This contributed to stream erosion. Another example is Cane Toad of South America, that was transplanted to Australia. He was supposed to help with a Cane Beetle problem. However, He not only ate Cane Beetles but also native Australian animals.
To learn about a particular animal, you need to study where they live, how they live, and who are their allies, prey, and predators. The answers may surprise you. For example, study Sloth Family (Three Toed and Two-Toed Sloth). Ponder how an animal as slow as Sloth could be spectacularly successful in Central and South America. In fact, Sloth accounts for at least one fourth of the total mammal biomass in these areas. In the tropical rainforests, Sloth eats what very few other mammals want. In addition, most predators cannot easily detect Sloth, hanging upside down in a tree. Usually, Sloth is left alone to eat his tree leaves.
Look at Two-Toed Sloth’s fur. Notice how green it is. Yes, green. Why is that? The grooves in his hair encourage blue-green algae to grow on his body. Also living on Two-Toed Sloth’s fur are Beetles and Moths that eat the algae. These plants and animals help Two-Toed Sloth to hide in the rainforest canopy, since together They resemble a tangle of branches. If need be, Two-Toed Sloth uses his sharp claws and considerable bite to defend Himself. Could He survive outside of a Tropical Rainforest? No, because Two-Toed Sloth has such little muscle mass that He cannot shiver. He needs to sun Himself in order to keep a constant body temperature. Two-Toed Sloth is uniquely adapted to his rainforest.
When learning about an animal, you need to learn what their function is in nature. Who are their allies, competitors, and enemies? Where does the animal live and how? When you explore these aspects of animal life, you appreciate and understand animals more.
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Picture of "BirdSpider" copyrighted by Mary Ann Sterling