by Elizabeth Trickey

That is a large number.  Put a dollar sign in front of it and I’d be set for life!  But no, it isn’t money.  It is the amount of animal species there are on Earth.  And, my friend, we are just one of them.  It is incredible how many different animals live on our planet.  Each one has a job to do to make our Earth viable, though the jury is out on what homo sapiens contribute to the positive welfare of our wonderful planet. 

Species are interconnected, sometimes helping, and even befriending, each other.  Let’s start by looking at unusual friendships between critters.  A couple of years ago, a coyote and badger were seen on video, travelling together through an eco passage under a highway.  The coyote got there first and excitedly waited for his friend, jumping and wagging his tail until the badger waddled into view, and then followed his buddy into the tunnel.  Watch the video and you’ll see the happy couple!

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‘Friendship’ between coyote and badger goes viral

‘Friendship’ between coyote and badger goes viral

Then there is the friendship forged at a zoo in Florida between a giraffe and an ostrich.  Despite there being many of those species in the 65 acre park, Bea and Wilma chose each other. 

They spend time in close physical contact, with Bea often licking Wilma.  Sounds kinky, but that’s just the way that giraffes explore and deal with their environment. 

The two friends can be seen at the park, wandering around or sitting together by a river. Aaahh, sounds like love to me.

“Bea and Wilma”  Photo:  Busch Gardens

Too often, in our neighbourhoods, we see unleashed dogs and cats attacking squirrels and chipmunks.  Due to this, Procyon gets several injured critters every year.  But not all pets treat wildlife as prey.  One cat, Mimi, was documented as saving 2 infant squirrels that had fallen from a tree in her backyard.  Mimi would groom and cuddle with the two squirrels.  And a dog, named Pretinha, took care of a litter of baby opossums whose mother was attacked and killed.  She nursed them, kept them warm, and when they became toddlers, Pretinha carried them around on her back, just like a mother opossum would!

“Mimi and squirrel” Photo:  Mary Cummins                                

“Pretinha” Photo: Stephanie Maldonado

Often, there are stories of how a lactating mother will adopt the babies of a different species.  Nurturing infants is such a strong instinct in many species that regardless of the critter, mothers willingly adopt and take care of orphans.  Mother cats will nurse piglets and chicks. 

Dogs will also share their milk with piglets, rabbits, and one dog at a zoo even nursed two baby tigers along with her own puppies!  One big, happy family!

Photo:  Changchun Zoo

And, funnily enough, the opposite is true.  While some mothers take in different species’ orphaned babies, there is one feathered friend that doesn’t want all the hard work of child-rearing!  The cuckoo bird sneaks its eggs into other species’ nests, being sure that the size of her eggs are similar to the host bird’s eggs. 

She is also smart enough to get rid of the other birds’ eggs – if she leaves two of her own eggs, she gets rid of two of the host’s eggs, leaving the same number to avoid suspicion!  And get this – when the cuckoo eggs hatch, and there are still some original eggs in the nest, the wee cuckoo infants will push them out of the nest! 

And we call these birds “cuckoos”.  I think they have come up with a darned good way of parenting from afar!

There are so many ways that animals work together to survive in our world.  The previous cuckoo example is called “brood parasitism” where one species benefits while the other species is negatively affected.  There are also 2 other types of inter-species relationships.  One is called “commensalism” where one species benefits from the relationship while not doing the host any harm.  Examples of this are birds that pluck fur from mammals to build their nests or egrets that follow cows to eat the pests that they stir up from the ground when they graze, and sucker fish that attach themselves to sharks for a free, safe ride around the ocean as well as getting bits of food uneaten by the sharks.

The third type of symbiosis is called “mutualism,” a relationship whereby both species benefit.  Examples of this are birds eating the ticks from deer – the bird gets dinner while the deer is less itchy.  Birds also eat food bits from the open mouths of crocodiles while the crocs get free dental care! 

Gravel ants and caterpillars have a unique friendship.  The ants protect the habitat by attacking predators which also protects the caterpillars, while their long, skinny friends provide a sweet fluid treat for the ants as a thank you! 

Honeyguide birds and honey badgers work together, with the bird leading the badger to the beehive while the badger breaks into it, and voilà – dinner is served for both species.

Many wild animals seem to live and travel around independently, and even do battle amongst their own species for mates and territory.  Yet they also watch out for each other.  Chipmunks are like this.  Although they will fight for the same peanut, they will also warn each other when predators are about.  Coyotes often mate for life, and if not, they tend to lead solitary lives.  However they still communicate with extended family members, especially when hunting large game.  Their howls can be heard from a great distance, requesting back-up to take down bigger, more difficult prey.

These examples are just a tiny picture of what happens world-wide between critters.  What this tells us is that to different degrees, all of us animals need each other to survive, and that we are all connected, though not necessarily directly.  We don’t have to know or like each other, but we do need to recognize that each species has a special place in the overall workings on Earth.  When one species becomes extinct, there is a domino effect that has a negative impact on the rest of the natural world. 

As a species that, in an extremely short time, has caused significant damage to our Earth through pollution and habitat destruction, humans need to start thinking about our fellow animals.  We all need clean water and air as well as a place to live and food to eat.  Those of us who are aware and concerned enough to reverse, or at least stop the carnage, can do something about this.  Presently, our profit driven Ontario government is trying to pass laws that will destroy protected lands – the habitats of so many species.  Speak out – write to your MPP, sign petitions, and educate your friends and neighbours to get them involved.  Engage in mutualism, and be an animal that contributes to the positive welfare of our planet.

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