Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Some Animals Give Poison Presents

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Characters on Game of Thrones aren't the only ones who hand out poison in the guise of gifts. Some real-world critters also hand out poison as presents, too. Take the Six-Spot Burnet (top), a type of moth, for example. Their bodies are black with a metallic sheen, save for the six crimson spots on their forewings that give them their name and advertise the fact that they’re chock-full of cyanide. The moths sequester the toxic compounds from the plants that they eat as larva and then synthesize the chemicals themselves when they’re older. The chemical defense and warning colors not only keep predators away, but the cyanide also makes a nice gift. 

Researchers in Denmark found that male Burnets with higher cyanide levels were more likely to get to mate with females, and that the males transferred some of their chemicals to their partners during sex. The scientists think that the “nuptial gift” could be a form of paternal care: If a mother moth has cyanide from daddy to spare, she can transfer some to her eggs to defend them. The female might also hang on to the poison and emit it as part of a chemical plume that helps her attract more males later on. 

Apple snail parents also give their offspring a little bit of poison when they come into the world. Their eggs contain two proteins, one of which gives the eggs a bright pink color that serves as a warning and one that’s a powerful neurotoxin that scares off all of the snail’s predators except the fire ant. The toxin is as strange as it is effective: Its structure is unlike anything else in the chemical defenses of animals, and was thought to be restricted to plants and bacteria. What’s more, the neurotoxin is made up of two other proteins that normally play a role in immune defense. Joined together, they protect against much more than disease, though, and show that defenses supposedly confined to one kingdom of life can also pop up in another. 

It’s not just invertebrates that have toxic gifts for their babies. Frogs do it, too. Poison dart frogs don’t make their poison on their own, but get it from the insects they eat and then store it in their skin. When the frogs are just born, they don’t have these chemicals and are pretty defenseless, so mom gives them a little bit of hers. Researchers from the US and Central America reported earlier this year that strawberry poison frogs feed their growing tadpoles with unfertilized eggs, which they load up with toxins from their own reserves. Thanks mom!

Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

10 Notable Gestation Periods in the Animal Kingdom

The gestation periods of the animal kingdom are varied and fascinating. Some clock in at just a few weeks, making any human green with envy, while others can last more than a year. Here are 10 notable gestation times for animals around the globe. The lesson? Be thankful that you’re not a pregnant elephant.

1. ELEPHANTS: 640-660 DAYS

Elephants are pregnant for a long time. Like really, really long. At an average of 95 weeks, the gestation period is more than double the length of a human pregnancy, so it shouldn't come as a shock that female elephants don't often have more than four offspring during their lifetimes. Who has the time?


A photo of a mother hippo and her baby in Uganda

Yes, it takes less time to make a hippopotamus than it takes to make a human.


Baby giraffes can weigh more than 150 pounds and can be around 6 feet tall. Another fascinating tidbit: giraffes give birth standing up, so it's pretty normal for a baby to fall 6 feet to the ground.


There’s a reason for the long wait: after that 17 months, Baby Shamu emerges weighing anywhere from 265 to 353 pounds and measuring about 8.5 feet long. Yikes.

5. OPOSSUM: 12-13 DAYS

A baby opossum wrapped up in a blanket

Blink and you'll miss it: This is the shortest gestation period of any mammal in North America. But since the lifespan of an opossum is only two to four years, it makes sense.


Hey, they get off pretty easy.


It's not a huge surprise that their gestational periods are pretty similar to ours, right?


A pair of black bear cubs

Also less than a human. Interestingly, cubs might only be 6 to 8 inches in length at birth and are completely hairless. 


This is the longest gestation period of any rodent. Thankfully for the mother, porcupine babies (a.k.a. porcupettes) are actually born with soft quills, and it's not until after birth that they harden up.


Baby walruses? Kind of adorable. They certainly take their sweet time coming out, though.


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