Did you know that May is National Be Kind to Animals Month? For the most part, especially if you’re reading this blog, you probably already have a soft spot in your heart for the charismatic animals of the world – so this seems like “preaching to the choir”, right?
There are MANY animals in the world and many of them, even by animal-lovers, are disliked. So let’s focus on the creepy-crawlies, the watchers of the night, and the less charismatic creatures, and the roles that they have in our ecosystems as well as little ways that we might learn to appreciate these species a bit more! Once we understand these animals, and get to know them, we can learn to be kind to them in a new way.
This strictly nocturnal creature is considered to be a bad omen if you see one on the island of Madagascar, and those who see them often kill them to prevent others from seeing an omen of death. Unfortunately, the Aye-Aye tends to be curious and approaches human settlements, increasing their risk of running into someone who would kill them. While Aye-Ayes do look startling with their large eyes and bony fingers, they are important pest controllers as they spend much of their time inspecting trees for delicious insect grubs that could harm tree populations. Education efforts on Madagascar are raising awareness about the benefits of these creatures and reducing the superstitions surrounding them.
Sharks are incredible and for the most part, are important apex predators that manage the marine food web below them. Not all sharks are predators though – some, such as the Whale Shark and Basking shark are actually filter feeders similarly to whales!
Predatory sharks have small holes on the underside of their chins called Ampullae of Lorenzini. These pores help them sense electromagnetic pulses in the water. Typically, if a healthy fish or seal is swimming gracefully, the electromagnetic pulses are small. A thrashing, or unhealthy fish or seal, creates more pulses, alerting the shark to prey that is weak or potentially injured. The sharks go after those animals first. When we splash around at a beach, we also create those stronger pulses, and the sharks become confused. Sharks don’t like the taste of people, and find no nutritional value in humans. They tend to be calm giants of the sea and gracefully swim through the water.
One of the largest threats to these gentle giants is illegal shark finning. Often, shark finners will catch a shark in fishing nets and then cut off the dorsal, caudal, and pectoral fins, tossing the remaining live shark back into the ocean. Since sharks have gills, they need to keep swimming in order to push oxygen through their body system. They can’t swim without their fins and die from suffocation before dying from their fin wounds. As the fish in the food web below them aren’t predated upon in the same amount, their populations can increase, which also throw smaller fish, and then detritus or bottom feeder fish out of whack as well.
These are often connected to the legend of Dracula and other vampire legends. Vampires are no where near the murderous animals that myths portray them as.
Their primary diet is blood and often feed off of sleeping cattle. The Vampire bat makes a very tiny incision and then laps at the blood that slowly trickles. This doesn’t even wake the animal up. They might drink for roughly 30 minutes before filling up. The animal, usually large, will wake up as normal and continue on with their lives.
Unfortunately, Vampire bats can carry diseases, so if they were to cut a human, those diseases could be transmitted via blood so they do run a human-wildlife conflict risk. However, they are crucial seed-dispersers for the trees and plants that they sleep in! Without these bats dispersing seeds on their fuzzy bodies as they fly and land, the population of agave, and many other cacti and tropical plants of Mexico would decline rapidly.
One of the characteristics seen across many quote-on-quote scary species is “an Excess of Legs”, causing spiders to be up on the list as a highly feared animal. From teensy garden spiders and orb-weavers, to large tarantulas and bird-eaters, many don’t like them, yet they all are so vital to managing populations of disease-carrying insects!
Without spiders in our world, disease would run way more rampant than it already does and animals higher up in the food chain, such as amphibians, birds, reptiles, fish, and small mammals would lose a nutritious food source. If you see a spider in a corner of the room, chances are it’s keeping the insect population at a minimum in your home!
Falling under that “way-too-many legs” category is the millipede. These armor-plated decomposers can have anywhere from 30-400 legs! Each body segment has two pairs of legs and some species have over 75 body segments! In fact, there is a species of millipede that lives in the leaf litter in California that is so long that it has space for 750 legs! That seems excessive to me, but hey, I’m not a millipede.
They live in the leaf litter and will also help to decompose the dead leaves, cycling the nutrients back into the soil system to feed new plant growth that supports wildlife populations.
Okay – back into the ocean. One of the other roots of fear of animals is the unknown, so many fear the deep dark ocean, causing many bioluminescent deep-sea creatures to be on the scarier side.
These, similarly to sharks, are predatory species, so they help to manage fish and crustacean populations. These fish use a bioluminescent orb attached to their heads to lure in prey and have large teeth. Definitely not ranking on the cute animals list. However, without the Angler fish population, the prey, such as crustaceans, would exponentially increase, causing great damage to coral reefs and other bottom habitats.
Since many crustaceans also eat detritus which is an important part of nutrient cycling, the nutrients found in the ocean available for other organisms, would be thrown out of balance and many species wouldn’t be able to adapt quickly enough to survive.
Not all of these animals need to be terrifying to be thought of as unlovable, yet slugs can be quite easily loved! With their squishy, slimy, brownish bodies inching along forest floors or underneath rocks and logs, they may not look so exciting, yet they also play an important role in nutrient cycling and decomposition, similarly to the millipedes!
Snails and slugs also eat decaying leaf litter and fallen logs, allowing what once was live to return their nutrients to the soil systems that feed future generations of plants.
This is also a challenging one for me. During every lesson I teach outside, I tell my students that we do NOT kill anything in nature. The spider, ant, beetle, isopod all have their roles to play, yet I do make mention that if found, we will kill ticks. Why do I single them out? First off, the deer tick, a common tick here in Southeastern Pennsylvania spreads Lyme’s Disease and I don’t want my participants come to a fun, engaging program and leave with a potentially debilitating disease. No fun.
Even though more commonly found (due to their size rather than their population density) on our legs, clothes, or in our hair are Dog ticks, which don’t carry Lyme. Ticks though, provide a huge food source for other creatures, such as ground nesting birds (like the Roughed Grouse which is PA’s state bird), or mammals such as the opossum. In fact, having opossums around can reduce tick populations be up to 90%, so those are great animals to have in your community as well.
While all of these animals are feared, may seem gross, or unlovable, they do have their ecological importance that once understood, can help us overcome fears. Maybe when you see that slug under a rock in the garden, or a spider on it’s web in the forest, or even head over to the beach, but can’t get in the water, we’ll now be able to calmly nod to the creature and understand how beautiful they can be.