Polar Play: Animals Have Fun Too

baby polar bearWe have all seen parrots talk, lionesses work as a team to hunt, and apes use tools to get the job done.  Humans tend to assign many behaviors a “human only” label; however, in reality, talking parrots are only the tip of the iceberg.

To those of us who have interacted with dogs, it is abundantly clear that animals take part in playful activity in the same way humans do.  But just how common is animal play, and why and to what extent do they do it?

cats playingWhile humans understand and expect that all animals play, we also grossly underestimate animals’ abilities to just relax and hang out.  Perhaps there is a “survival of the fittest” rule in nature, but sometimes these rules don’t apply—unless playing makes you “fit!”

When Brian La Doone’s sled dog Hudson approached a wild, hungry-looking polar bear, La Doone thought that was the end of Hudson.  But instead, he was in for a pleasant surprise.  Hudson and the bear began playing with each other, rolling around and wrestling in the snow, even embracing and nipping at each other.  Apparently the two playmates enjoyed each other’s company so much that they met for a playdate every night for a week!

bear and dogThe most amazing thing about this story is not the fact that polar bears and dogs are not the same species, but that dog and bear are natural enemies and the hungry bear, by the rules of nature, should have charged down the dog and made Hudson its next meal.  Instead of getting its meal then, the bear waited for an entire week for the ice to thicken enough for it to return to its hunting grounds, all for the sake of play.

Evolutionary psychologists believe there must be benefits to play, because usually it makes you less fit than you were at the start:  animals could become injured, expend energy, and become distracted from predators.  Some biologists believe play could prepare you for survival activities, such as dogs and lions pouncing with each other and gazelles running to become speedier, and others have discovered evidence that play is good for the brain and for building social connections.  Some scientists even think that humans should play more as adults, and that we would benefit enormously from doing so.

monkeys playingSo while it may not be a good idea to try to engage a polar bear in a wrestling match if you come across one, perhaps we would all be a little bit better off if we made a little time for play every day—I know I would!




Stuart Brown’s TED Talk: “Play is More Than Fun, It’s Vital:”  http://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.html

Book on animal play: http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/genesis-animal-play

BBC: “Why Do Animals Play?”  http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130109-why-do-animals-like-to-play

Wikipedia: Polar Bear: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polar_bear

National Institute of Play: Introduction: http://www.nifplay.org/science_intro.html

National Institue of Play: Bibliography: http://www.nifplay.org/biblio_fin.html

A Bee’s Buzz

Where do bees get their buzz?  No, I’m not referring to the sound their vibrating wings make when they fly.  In fact, I’m talking about a much more colloquial “buzz” – the one you get from caffeine when you drink a cup of coffee.  It turns out bees also enjoy the little boost in energy they reap from coffee plants when they drink the nectar, which contains low levels of caffeine that the pollinators obtain much satisfaction from.


Plants originally evolved caffeine as a defense against herbivory because it can be toxic at high levels.  However, at low levels, it encourages honeybees to return to the plant – thus increasing the plant’s pollination efficacy – because the honeybees’ learning and memory abilities are enhanced, and therefore the honeybee reaps a benefit from the plant.  So what began as a deterrent for herbivores is now a triple whammy for the plant, which now 1) attracts more bees because the bee enjoys the caffeine buzz, 2) ensures the bee will return because its learning and memory are enhanced due to the caffeine, and 3) repels herbivores at the same time!

“Bees on caffeine buzz pollinate better.” http://www.thenews.com.pk/article-91262-Bees-on-caffeine-buzz-pollinate-better

“Plants give bees a caffeine buzz.” http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/2013/03/11/plants-give-bees-a-caffeine-buzz/

Leaf-tailed gecko: a master of disguise

leaf tailed gecko camo This amazing creature is a master of disguise, blending in to its surroundings to the point that it is nearly indistinguishable from the litter of the forest floor where it makes its home.  The gecko, which has evolved its elaborate camouflage to escape visual detection by predators, sports leaf-shaped tail and leaf-patterned skin, complete with veins, folds, and insect nibble marks.

Giant leaf-tail gecko / reuzenbladstaartgekko (Uroplatus fimbriatus)

Both crypticity and mimicry deceive the beholder into believing that the animal is something that it is not.  Crypticity typically involves an animal avoiding detection through colors and patterns and can be visual, olfactory, or auditory (Stevens & Merilaita 2009).  Visual crypticity can include camouflage, disruptive coloration, and background-matching, and can be quite striking.  Crypticity is distinguished from a similar phenomenon, masquerading, in that masquerading involves the matching of specific inanimate object like twigs or rocks rather than matching the general background (Gullan & Cranston 2010).


The majority of individuals of the few extant (living) species of leaf-tailed gecko on Earth are endemic to Madagascar and a few surrounding islands and are inextricably linked to the survival of the Madagascan rainforest, meaning that habitat destruction primarily in the form of deforestation poses a potential threat for these cool critters.  There are several protected areas in Madagascar that are therefore crucial for the leaf-tailed gecko’s continued existence.  Some of the species are of “least concern” on the IUCN’s conservation status scale, meaning that the protected areas are doing their job for the most part; however, illegal harvesting of these animals has caused some species’ numbers to drop and vary from “near threatened” to “vulnerable” status.  These little guys are unique and incredible, and offer just another reason to save the earth’s rainforests, without which many interesting species such as this one could not hope to survive!


Gullan, P.J. and P.S. Cranston.  The Insects.  Ed. 4.  Wiley-Blackwell: UK, 2010.

Stevens, M. & S. Merilaita. 2009. Animal camouflage: current issues and new perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364:423-427.

“Uroplatus phantasticus.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uroplatus_phantasticus

“Satanic Leaf-tailed gecko.” http://www.arkive.org/satanic-leaf-tailed-gecko/uroplatus-phantasticus/

“Leaf-tailed gecko.” http://a-z-animals.com/animals/leaf-tailed-gecko/

“Animal of the week: the satanic leaf-tailed gecko.” http://www.bite.ca/bitedaily/2013/03/animal-of-the-week-the-satanic-leaf-tailed-gecko/

Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! What is a keystone species and how can conservationists use them?

Lion (Panthera leo)

tiger cub

Tiger (Panthera tigris)

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)

What do these three animals have in common?  No, it’s not that they’re all featured in a popular film.  It’s not even that they’re all at the top of the food chain, although that’s closer.  Lions, tigers, and bears are all keystone species.

In architecture, the keystone at the top of an arch holds the arch together.  Without the keystone, the whole arch and building surrounding it will collapse.  Similarly, “keystone species” are animals that have a disproportionately large effect on the ecosystems they live in.

For example, Robert T. Paine first tested the keystone species hypothesis empirically (scientifically) by removing a species of starfish (Pisaster) from its intertidal habitat and observing the dramatic changes this removal wrought on the starfish’s prey, mussels (Mytilus) and the ecosystem as a whole.  It turns out that the starfish helped to keep the mussels’ numbers in check, and without the starfish to eat the mussels, the mussel population exploded and took over the habitat, crowding out other species and decreasing biodiversity (the numbers of different species in an ecosystem).

Keystone species can fall under several different categories.  Top predators, like the starfish, are often keystone species because of the inherent role they play by eating lots of smaller animals.  That’s why it’s so important to conserve large mammalian carnivores like lions, tigers, and bears – all endangered species – which unfortunately attract a lot of poaching due to their magnificent furs and sought-after meat.


Another category of keystone species are mutualists, which are animals that help many other species for something in return (in a mutually beneficial relationship).  For example, fruit trees are keystone mutualists because they provide shelter and food for many animals like monkeys and birds, which repay the tree by dispersing their seeds far and wide.

Finally, ecosystem engineers are keystone species because they are animals that change the physical landscape in which they live.  Beavers, elephants, and prairie dogs are all examples of ecosystem engineers because they build dams, destroy trees, and make burrows, respectively.


Prairie dog (Cynomys)

Learning about these concepts helps scientists and environmentalists define categories in which to place animals and know which animals to target in conservation efforts.  It is far easier to conserve a whole ecosystem by protecting one species than by trying to protect the entire community of animals.  In this way, scientists use keystone species to protect Mother Nature, one animal at a time!



See No Ordinary World’s post on sea otters, another important keystone species:  https://thisisnoordinaryworld.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/sea-otters-adorable-endangered-and-a-keystone-species/.

Keystone species definition: http://animals.about.com/od/animalswildlife101/f/keystonespecies.htm.

“Keystone.”  Wikipedia.org.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_(architecture).

“Keystone Species.” Marietta.edu.  http://www.marietta.edu/~biol/biomes/keystone.htm.

“Keystone Species.”  Wikipedia.org.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_species.

“Mutualism.”  Wikipedia.org.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutualism_(biology).

Sea Otters: Adorable, Endangered, and A Keystone Species

Here_I_am.. sea otter baby sea otter

This cuddly creature is a sea otter, or Enhydra lutris, a well-known marine mammal native to the coasts of the northern and eastern North Pacific Ocean.  This furry, playful fellow is more than just adorable, however.  Otters are a keystone species.

In architecture, the keystone at the top of an arch holds the arch together.  Without the keystone, the whole arch and building surrounding it will collapse.  Similarly, some species of animals are called “keystone species,” meaning that a whole ecosystem, or interplay between living organisms and their surroundings, depends on that particular species to keep it running smoothly.


Sea otters play a crucial role in their watery home.  How do we know?  Here’s the story:

In the 1700s, sea otters along the coast of California were hunted nearly to extinction for their furs and killed by fishermen who thought they were eating too much of the fish they wanted to catch.  When the otters disappeared, the animals they normally eat, sea urchins, enjoyed a large population boom.  Soon, there were so many sea urchins that they ate all of the kelp, a type of seaweed, at the bottom of the ocean, and caused an “urchin barren” to form, which means that the ocean floor is scraped clean and becomes an “ocean desert” in the ocean that is essentially devoid of life.  This is bad!  Fish raise their young in the protection of the kelp and other animals hide it in to avoid prey, and all those animals began to flee the scene as well. The fishermen now had less fish to catch, not more.  It turns out the otter was playing a much more crucial role in this ecosystem than people previously knew.

What happened to the otters?  In 1911, a treaty was passed to protect the sea otters from being hunted.  In some places, the populations of sea otters recovered, and eventually so did the kelp and fish.  But there are still some areas that have suffered near-permanent damage from the removal of just one type of animal – the sea otter – from its home.

Now, the sea otter is globally an endangered species, meaning that its numbers are so low that it is under imminent threat of becoming extinct, or dying out entirely.  The sea otter’s story shows us that if we take action we can achieve a remarkable success story that seems daunting, if not impossible, at first.


“Here I am..” Top left photograph.  Photograph taken by Alan  Wolf and distributed under a Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Baby sea otter photograph: sflo1822 on tumblr.

Three otters photograph: jamoore52 on tumblr.

Seat otter:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_otter

Keystone species (definition): http://animals.about.com/od/animalswildlife101/f/keystonespecies.htm

Keystone species hypothesis: http://www.washington.edu/research/pathbreakers/1969g.html

Keystone species empirical evidence:  http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/07/03/rspb.2012.0856.full