3 Sneaky Chemical Tricks Used by Animals

1. These are not the frogs you’re looking for

On the savannahs of West Africa, stink ants (Paltothyreus tarsatus) are well known for their aggressive foraging raids, in which huge numbers of ants hunt together for larger insects and even vertebrate animals as large as frogs and rodents. The ants are just as dangerous at home, and will defend their colonies and kill intruders with powerful bites and venomous stings. 

They don’t seem like they’d make good roommates, but they’re exactly what the West African Rubber Frog (Phrynomantis microps) is looking for. The ants' nests are nice and humid and keep the frog’s skin moist during the long dry season, and the ferocity with which the ants guard their home means the frog doesn’t have to worry about other predators. 

If any other frog tried to move in to a stink ant colony, it would be attacked and stung immediately, but the ants seem to ignore the Rubber Frog completely. This is because the frog uses what’s sort of a chemical Jedi mind trick. Most social insects like ants use chemical cues to communicate and recognize each other. To get along with its potentially less-than-gracious hosts, the frog coats its skin with compounds that tell the ants, in their chemical language, to leave it alone. 

The frog’s skin secretions are an allomone, an animal-produced chemical signal that benefits the sender by altering the behavior of the receiver. Some allomones work as repellants that keep predators away. Others attract unwitting prey. The one used by the Rubber Frog seems to work as what scientists call an appeasement substance. It curbs the ants’ aggression and delays their attack by saying, Nope, don’t mind me—I’m not making trouble

The allomone even works when it's not the frog wearing it. When researchers covered mealworms and termites with skin secretions from a Rubber Frog and offered them to ants, the ants ignored the treats for several minutes until the secretions dried and the effect wore off. 

2. Looks like a silverfish, smells like an ant


The silverfish Malayatelura ponerphila also lives among ants in their nests, but takes a slightly different approach to blending in. Instead of appeasing its hosts, M. Ponerophila disguises itself as one of them. 

Because the chemical signals the ants use to communicate are so widely distributed through their colonies, say biologists Freddie-Jean Richard and Jim Hunt, each colony takes on a specific odor that help its members tell nestmates and intruders apart. M. Ponerophila borrows this chemical uniform by sneaking into a colony and rubbing its body against defenseless larvae, pupae, and callows (immature ants) to pick up the compounds that form the colony’s signature odor. 

As long as a silverfish keeps this scent on itself, it gets access to shelter in the nest and the ants’ food stores, without having to contribute anything to the colony. Like stink ants, though, the army ants that M. Ponerophila lives with in Malaysia are very aggressive, and silverfish that are separated from their scent supply and recognized as intruders are frequently attacked and killed. 

3. Sheep in wolf’s clothing

Chemical trickery isn’t just for sneaking into ant colonies. Two different squirrel species are known to chew on rattlesnake sheds and then lick themselves, anointing their fur with odor compounds from the old skin. As with the silverfish, this gives the squirrel a chemical disguise that helps it hide its own squirrel-y scent from snakes.

The rattler perfume also seems to help the squirrels by changing their behavior. Researchers noticed that squirrels that had recently applied snake scent to their fur groomed themselves more and rested less. The squirrels, the researchers thought, had fooled themselves a little with their disguise, too, and were going through a stress response to the scent of a predator—which helped make them more alert in case an actual snake showed up.

Original image
Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
Original image

Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

10 Juicy Facts About Sea Apples

They're both gorgeous and grotesque. Sea apples, a type of marine invertebrate, have dazzling purple, yellow, and blue color schemes streaking across their bodies. But some of their habits are rather R-rated. Here’s what you should know about these weird little creatures.


The world’s oceans are home to more than 1200 species of sea cucumber. Like sand dollars and starfish, sea cucumbers are echinoderms: brainless, spineless marine animals with skin-covered shells and a complex network of internal hydraulics that enables them to get around. Sea cucumbers can thrive in a range of oceanic habitats, from Arctic depths to tropical reefs. They're a fascinating group with colorful popular names, like the “burnt hot dog sea cucumber” (Holothuria edulis) and the sea pig (Scotoplanes globosa), a scavenger that’s been described as a “living vacuum cleaner.”


Sea apples have oval-shaped bodies and belong to the genus Pseudocolochirus and genus Paracacumaria. The animals are indigenous to the western Pacific, where they can be found shuffling across the ocean floor in shallow, coastal waters. Many different types are kept in captivity, but two species, Pseudocolochirus violaceus and Pseudocolochirus axiologus, have proven especially popular with aquarium hobbyists. Both species reside along the coastlines of Australia and Southeast Asia.


Sea cucumbers, the ocean's sanitation crew, eat by swallowing plankton, algae, and sandy detritus at one end of their bodies and then expelling clean, fresh sand out their other end. Sea apples use a different technique. A ring of mucus-covered tentacles around a sea apple's mouth snares floating bits of food, popping each bit into its mouth one at a time. In the process, the tentacles are covered with a fresh coat of sticky mucus, and the whole cycle repeats.


Sea apples' waving appendages can look delicious to predatory fish, so the echinoderms minimize the risk of attracting unwanted attention by doing most of their feeding at night. When those tentacles aren’t in use, they’re retracted into the body.


The rows of yellow protuberances running along the sides of this specimen are its feet. They allow sea apples to latch onto rocks and other hard surfaces while feeding. And if one of these feet gets severed, it can grow back.


Sea apples are poisonous, but a few marine freeloaders capitalize on this very quality. Some small fish have evolved to live inside the invertebrates' digestive tracts, mooching off the sea apples' meals and using their bodies for shelter. In a gross twist of evolution, fish gain entry through the back door, an orifice called the cloaca. In addition expelling waste, the cloaca absorbs fresh oxygen, meaning that sea apples/cucumbers essentially breathe through their anuses.


Most full-grown adult sea apples are around 3 to 8 inches long, but they can make themselves look twice as big if they need to escape a threat. By pulling extra water into their bodies, some can grow to the size of a volleyball, according to Advanced Aquarist. After puffing up, they can float on the current and away from danger. Some aquarists might mistake the robust display as a sign of optimum health, but it's usually a reaction to stress.


Sea apples use their vibrant appearance to broadcast that they’re packing a dangerous toxin. But to really scare off predators, they puke up some of their own innards. When an attacker gets too close, sea apples can expel various organs through their orifices, and some simultaneously unleash a cloud of the poison holothurin. In an aquarium, the holothurin doesn’t disperse as widely as it would in the sea, and it's been known to wipe out entire fish tanks.


These invertebrates reproduce sexually; females release eggs that are later fertilized by clouds of sperm emitted by the males. As many saltwater aquarium keepers know all too well, sea apple eggs are not suitable fish snacks—because they’re poisonous. Scientists have observed that, in Pseudocolochirus violaceus at least, the eggs develop into small, barrel-shaped larvae within two weeks of fertilization.


Syzgium grande is a coastal tree native to Southeast Asia whose informal name is "sea apple." When fully grown, they can stand more than 140 feet tall. Once a year, it produces attractive clusters of fuzzy white flowers and round green fruits, perhaps prompting its comparison to an apple tree.


More from mental floss studios