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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

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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.

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Animals
14 Fascinating Facts About Foxes
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Foxes live on every continent except Antarctica and thrive in cities, towns, and rural settings. But despite being all around us, they’re a bit of a mystery. Here’s more about this elusive animal.

1. Foxes Are Solitary.

Foxes are part of the Canidae family, which means they’re related to wolves, jackals, and dogs. They’re medium-sized, between 7 and 15 pounds, with pointy faces, lithe frames, and bushy tails. But unlike their relatives, foxes are not pack animals. When raising their young, they live in small families—called a “leash of foxes” or a “skulk of foxes”—in underground burrows. Otherwise, they hunt and sleep alone.

2. Foxes Have A Lot In Common With Cats.

Like the cat, the fox is most active after the sun goes down. In fact, it has vertically oriented pupils that allow it to see in dim light. It even hunts in a similar manner to a cat, by stalking and pouncing on its prey.

And that’s just the beginning of the similarities. Like the cat, the fox has sensitive whiskers and spines on its tongue. It walks on its toes, which accounts for its elegant, cat-like tread. And—get this—many foxes have retractable claws that allow them to climb rooftops or trees. Some foxes even sleep in trees—just like cats.

3. The Red Fox Is The Most Common Fox.

The red fox has the widest geographical range of any animal in the order Carnivora. While its natural habitat is a mixed landscape of scrub and woodland, its flexible diet allows it to adapt to many environments. As a result, its range is the entire Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to North Africa to Central America to the Asiatic steppes. It’s also in Australia, where it’s considered an invasive species.

4. Foxes Use The Earth’s Magnetic Field.

Like a guided missile, the fox harnesses the earth’s magnetic field to hunt. Other animals, like birds, sharks, and turtles, have this “magnetic sense,” but the fox is the first one we’ve discovered that uses it to catch prey.

According to New Scientist, the fox can see the earth’s magnetic field as a “ring of shadow” on its eyes that darkens as it heads towards magnetic north. When the shadow and the sound the prey is making line up, it’s time to pounce. Here’s the fox in action:

5. Foxes Are Good Parents.

Foxes reproduce once a year. Litters range from one to 11 pups (the average is six), which are born blind and don’t open their eyes until nine days after birth. During that time, they stay with the vixen (female) in the den while the dog (male) brings them food. They live with their parents until they're seven months old. The vixen protects her pups with surprising loyalty. Recently, a fox pup was caught in a trap in England for two weeks, but survived because its mother brought it food every day.

6. The Smallest Fox Weighs Under 3 Pounds.

Roughly the size of a kitten, the fennec fox has elongated ears and a creamy coat. It lives in the Sahara Desert, where it sleeps during the day to protect it from the searing heat. Its ears not only allow it to hear prey, they also radiate body heat, which keeps the fox cool. Its paws are covered with fur so that the fox can walk on hot sand, like it’s wearing snowshoes.

7. Foxes Are Playful.

Foxes are known to be friendly and curious. They play among themselves as well as with other animals like cats and dogs. They love balls, which they frequently steal from golf courses.

Although foxes are wild animals, their relationship with humans goes way back. In 2011, researchers opened a grave in a 16,500-year-old cemetery in Jordan to find the remains of a man and his pet fox. This was 4000 years before the first-known human and dog were buried together.

8. You Can Buy A Pet Fox.

In the 1960s, a Soviet geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev bred thousands of foxes before achieving a domesticated fox. Unlike a tame fox, which has learned to tolerate humans, a domesticated fox is docile toward people from birth. Today, you can buy a pet fox for $9000, according to Fast Company. They’re reportedly curious and sweet-tempered, although inclined to dig in your furniture.

9. Arctic Foxes Don’t Shiver Until –70 degrees Celsius.

The arctic fox, which lives in the northernmost areas of the hemisphere, can handle cold better than most animals on earth. It doesn’t even get cold until –70 degrees Celsius. Its white coat also camouflages it against predators. As the seasons change, the coat changes too, turning brown or gray so the fox can blend in with the rocks and dirt of the tundra.

10. Fox Hunting Continues To Be Controversial.

Perhaps because of the fox’s ability to decimate a chicken coop, in the 16th century, fox hunting became a popular activity in Britain. In the 19th century, the upper classes turned fox hunting into a formalized sport where a pack of hounds and men on horseback chase a fox until it is killed. Today, whether to ban fox hunting continues to be a controversial subject in the UK. Currently, fox hunting with dogs is not allowed.

11. The Fox Appears Throughout Folklore.

Examples include: the nine-tail fox from various Asian cultures; the Reynard tales from medieval Europe; the sly trickster fox from Native American lore; and Aesop’s “The Fox and the Crow.” The Finnish believed a fox made the Northern Lights by running in the snow so that its tail swept sparks into the sky. From this, we get the phrase “fox fires.”

12. Bat-eared Foxes Listen For Insects.

The bat-eared fox is aptly named, not just because of its 5-inch ears, but because of what it uses those ears for—like the bat, it listens for insects. On a typical night, the fox walks along the African Savannah, listening, until it hears the scuttle of prey. Although the fox eats a variety of insects and lizards, most of its diet is made up of termites. In fact, the bat-eared fox often makes its home in termite mounds, which it usually cleans out of inhabitants before moving in.

13. Darwin Discovered A Fox Species.

During his voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin collected a fox that today is unimaginatively called Darwin’s Fox. This small gray fox is critically endangered and lives in just two spots in the world: One population is on Island of Chiloé in Chile, and the second is in a Chilean national park. The fox’s greatest threats are unleashed domestic dogs that carry diseases like rabies.

14. Foxes Sound Like This.

Foxes make 40 different sounds, some of which you can listen to here. The most startling is the scream:

Pleasant dreams!

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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