Animal Kingdom Kleptos: 7 Species That Steal

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Humanity, you’re not alone in harboring a criminal element. Some animals have developed kleptoparasitic tendencies, which means they’re willing to steal food that’s been collected by another animal. Other animals are just outright sneaky, and will take anything that’s there for the snatching. Here are seven animal kleptos.

1. Bumblebee

It’s a tenet of nature that the typical bee feeds off the nectar of a plant for pollinating that plant, but some bees are too rude to play by the rules. Bees who’ve evolved with short tongues and thus can’t reach for the sweet nectar have learned to carve holes into the side of a flower in order to reach their reward. This phenomenon, first observed by Charles Darwin, gets a bee nectar without the bee pollinating the plant. More cannily, there’s evidence suggesting that bees aren’t born behaving this way—they learn how to thieve from other bees, a sad sign that bee society is being overrun by hoodlums.

2. Sperm whale

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Grace is not a word instinctively associated with the sperm whale, given its hulking size. But fishermen complaining about their depleted hauls were shocked to record video of a sperm whale nimbly plucking a savory sablefish off the end of a line with its tongue, leaving barely a trace of evidence. Whales will use their sonar to track a fishing boat so they can slip in when the line is heaviest, and are advanced enough to differentiate between the tastiest catches. Of course, there’s a school of thought stating that it’s really the fishermen who are stealing from the ocean, and that the sperm whale is just correcting the balance of nature. Fight the power, whale!

3. Skua

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A moniker like “avian pirate” has a heavy reputation, and the skua’s plundering tactic isn’t quite as charming as Johnny Depp’s. The skua will gang up on smaller seabirds such as the guillemot and kittiwake, forcing them to give up a recently acquired kill. Sometimes, that means scaring a mark into vomiting up the contents of its stomach; other times, that means spearing another bird out of the air over and over until it drops its catch. It’s not very nice, but no skua ever claimed it was here to make friends.

4. Hyena

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Despite their depiction in The Lion King as skeevy flea-bags all too excited to endorse a false king, hyenas are wily hunters who can survive on anything and travel in large matriarchally organized clans. And they're savvy enough to snatch a fresh kill from animals who haven't learned to do their hunting when the hyena is asleep. It's payback from when larger cats stole their own spoils, a natural part of the animal kingdom's adaptive ecosystem. Don't believe everything you see, even if it's a Disney classic.

5. Magpie

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Type “magpie stealing” into YouTube and a number of videos will pop up showing a string of eclectic thefts: tea light candles, coathangers, lighters, cigarettes, cookies, dog food, raccoon bait, and more. An Englishwoman even thought she’d lost her engagement ring until it turned up three years later in a magpie’s nest. Though superstition states that magpies prefer shiny objects, they’re willing to take whatever—a characteristic that’s perhaps enabled by a prodigious intelligence rating amongst the highest of all animals. Hence the taken tea light candles—clearly, that magpie was smart enough to recognize how much they would improve the mood lighting for a party.

6. Burrowing owl

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Pity the poor prairie dog, which does so much work building a habitat only to see it taken over by a stranger proclaiming a very simple edict: your home or your life. The burrowing owl prefers to occupy a burrow that’s already been dug out by a prairie dog, and is willing to eat those who aren’t naturally submissive to its bullying. It’s a truly parasitic relationship, as there’s evidence showing that burrowing owl populations are drastically depleted in areas where prairie dogs have been targeted for extermination. “I can’t quit you” isn’t the greatest consolation during the eviction process, but it’s better than nothing.

7. Bdelloid rotifers

A lack of sex will lead a person toward some pretty erratic behavior; still, the the bdelloid rotifer takes asexuality to another level. The microscopic animal has been a female-only species for 80 million years, but they’ve nevertheless diversified into hundreds of other subspecies by absorbing the DNA of fungi, bacteria, algae, and whatever else is small enough to consume at the planktonic level. That allows them to develop different traits to help survive in varied environments, since monastic perseverance is at least something in lieu of a hot date.

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May 16, 2013 - 8:00am
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