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Monday, May 27, 2024

Column: Top five underrated animals

We all have favorite animals to see when we go to the zoo. My personal favorite is the elephant; its size, unique body shape and sociability always made me drag my parents to see them whenever they were on display.

The problem is that in favoring flashy animals like elephants, lions and monkeys, people often overlook a lot of interesting organisms.

A lot of these animals aren’t anyone’s favorite simply because we don’t see them much, perhaps because they stay in the depths of the ocean or underground.

Other animals are overlooked for their awesomeness because of how irritating they can be to humans. It was hard for me to remember how cool ants actually are while I sprayed Raid over the dozens of them marching across my pantry.

In honor of these attention-starved animals, I present my top five underrated animals.

Termites

Termites are not well liked by most people, and for good reason; repairing termite damage is often very expensive. Under the surface, however, are insects that rival humans in their architecture and agriculture. The Macrotermes termite genus in Africa have been known to build mounds up to nine meters high. Even when the mounds aren’t that big, they are complex labyrinths that regulate air flow to allow the termites to control the temperature of their home.

Some species of termite also maintain gardens. They grow the specialized fungus Termitomyces for much the same reasons humans have grown crops: grow enough to feed your community, while taking good care of them to ensure crop for the future.

Hagfish

Hagfish, also called slime eels, are not strictly fish or eels. There is debate among taxonomists, the researchers who decide how to classify and name life forms, about where they belong on the tree of life since they belong to a much more ancient lineage of marine life than any other fish.

That, however, is not the reason they made this list. Hagfish secrete slime when held by predators, which expands into a gooey substance when it contacts water. Not just a little bit of goo, either; a single adult hagfish can exude enough of the disgusting mucus to turn a five-gallon bucket of water into slime in minutes.

Horned lizard

Another animal on the disgusting defense list. When the horned lizard feels threatened, it constricts blood vessels in its skull, which increases the blood pressure behind its eyes. If you or I tried this, the best that we could hope for would be a migraine, but this odd reptile can then force these vessels to rupture, shooting blood from its eyes! The benefit to the lizard is not only the “holy shit” factor but also that the blood is foul tasting to potential predators — as one could probably assume for blood shot out of an eye socket.

Fulmars

The fulmar, a sea bird whose name is an Old Norse phrase meaning foul gull, lives up to its name with the method fulmar chicks use to defend themselves against other birds. When threatened, fulmar chicks spew a foul smelling, oily vomit onto their foes.

Not only is the predator taken aback by the stench, the vomit gums up the feathers of the attacker and potentially leads to their death. That is a bad-ass baby bird.

Octopi

Last but not least is the octopus. They have several defense mechanisms, including the infamous inky spurt, but they also have an amazingly sophisticated camouflage ability.

Though chameleons are the animals with the biggest reputation for camouflage, the award for best disguise (if there were such an award) should go to octopus and cuttlefish. Special skin cells called chromatophores change the color, as well as pattern, on the skin in just a couple of seconds that make it fade almost instantly into the background.

These animals may be disgusting, or scary, or just plain weird. In the case of the octopus, they may even be beautiful. Those qualities make these animals interesting. I’m not saying that animals more commonly seen at zoos aren’t cool, because they definitely are. Just keep in mind that there are countless fascinating life forms around the world, many of them as yet undiscovered by humans.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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