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8 Animals That Get Their Color From Food

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gives new meaning to “you are what you eat.” In the classic kids’ book, a girl named Violet Beauregarde chews some experimental blueberry-flavored gum—and it turns her blueberry-blue. But for some animals, that’s not too far from the truth: they get their colors from the food they eat. Here are eight critters that get their hues from their diet, plus two honorable mentions: a bird that’s shinier when it eats bugs, and a garden plant that switches between pink and blue.

1. BLUE-FOOTED BOOBIES

Native to warm waters of the eastern Pacific, blue-footed boobies (above) have, well, bright blue feet. They use this fancy footwear to attract mates via an awkward dance. The blue color comes directly from carotenoid pigments in their fishy diet, and healthier birds can afford to expend more pigment to intensify their foot coloration. So, a bird with brighter feet is a more attractive partner. 

2. EASTERN EMERALD ELYSIAS

Karen N. Pelletreau et al. via Wikimedia // CC BY 4.0

Its name is straight out of a fantasy novel, and that’s not even the coolest thing about this marine slug-like animal. The eastern emerald elysia has turned itself, at least in part, into a plant. It’s green, it’s shaped almost exactly like a leaf, and it can do something that animals usually can’t do: make food from the sun.

Plants are green because their cells have special green parts called chloroplasts that make energy from the sun. When the eastern emerald elysia eats some algae, it adds insult to injury by stealing the algae’s chloroplasts. Then it basks in the sunlight and absorbs the food that the chloroplasts make. It’s able to keep these stolen parts functioning for nearly a year—enough time so that it may never need to eat algae again.

3. SALMON

Salmon flesh has such a lovely hue that we call it, well, salmon pink. These fish get their color from the small shellfish they eat. Farmed salmon are fed natural or synthetic pigments so that their meat retains this familiar tint.

4. FLAMINGOS

Everyone knows that flamingos are pink and bluebirds are blue, right? Well, not really: Flamingos are definitely pink, but bluebirds’ blue color is an illusion.

Birds have different ways of looking colorful. A bluebird’s feathers have special structures that break up light and reflect just the blue parts. This makes them look blue—but only when light is hitting them in just the right way. If you take a bluebird feather and shine a light behind it, the feather will appear brown. The same is true of most other blue and green birds, from blue jays to green parrots.

Flamingos, on the other hand, have feathers that stay pink no matter which way you look at them. That’s because they’re full of pink-red pigments called carotenoids—carrots are orange because they contain a type of carotenoid. Flamingos get this pink stuff from the shrimp that they eat. If they don’t consume the right food, they’ll turn grayer. Zookeepers have to feed their flamingos food with the right pigments to keep them rosy.

5. GOLDFINCHES

Many other birds get their hues from carotenoid pigments. That’s true of American goldfinches, which are blazing yellow in breeding season. Female goldfinches size up males based on the vibrancy of their yellow: Brighter males are healthier and have better diets, so they’re more attractive.

6. CEDAR WAXWINGS

Cedar waxwings are small, sleek songbirds. Their tails usually have yellow tips—but some have red tails, and it’s all our fault.

Cedar waxwings are native to North America, and they love eating berries. A few decades ago, people brought Asian honeysuckle varieties to North America. These plants spread throughout the forests, and they produce big red berries that are impossible for a hungry waxwing to resist. The berries are rich in a reddish pigment that builds up in waxwing tails, turning them from yellow to orange.

7. NUDIBRANCHS

Related to snails, nudibranchs live in the ocean, and they’re mind-blowingly colorful. Really: feast your eyes on these hues. They’re so colorful, in fact, that there’s a blog matching different species to David Bowie’s outfits.

Many nudibranchs get their bright colors from their prey. One species, the red sponge dorid, is bright red and probably gets its pigment from the red sponges it eats. This has the added benefit of giving the red sponge dorid some amazing camouflage when it’s crawling on its spongy food.

8. FRILLED DRAGONS

Remember that scene in Jurassic Park when a neck-frilled dinosaur terrifies the hapless hacker Dennis Nedry, then spits poison on him? The movie’s creators got their inspiration from Australia and New Guinea’s frilled dragons—also known as frill-necked lizards. These remarkable reptiles flare their huge frills when they’re scared, or as part of territorial or courtship displays.

Frilled dragons’ frills come in different colors, from red to orange to yellow. The colors depend on their geographical location—and the variation is probably because of the different amounts of pigment in their prey.

HONORABLE MENTION #1: HUMMINGBIRDS.

Many hummingbirds have shiny, iridescent patches of feathers. These hues don’t come from their diet; they’re the result of specially structured feathers that reflect light in amazing ways. But even though hummingbirds don’t get their color directly from their food, their diet has a strong influence on how shiny and bright they’ll be. 

Anna’s hummingbirds are tiny, fast-moving birds that live along the Pacific Coast of North America. Their foreheads and chins are iridescent red-purple. When they’re staking out territory, they stick up these feathers and enthusiastically show them off. To keep up their high-energy lifestyles, these birds eat sugary flower nectar. But there’s one problem with this sweet diet: Hummingbirds need protein to make their shiny feathers, and there’s not a lot of protein in nectar. Another option is to catch and eat insects, but this takes a LOT of energy. Scientists have found that Anna’s hummingbirds on higher-protein diets have shinier, redder crowns.

HONORABLE MENTION #2: HYDRANGEAS

Plants can also change color depending on their diets. Hydrangeas are familiar garden flowers, and they’re like living mood rings. If a hydrangea plant is absorbing aluminum from the soil, it turns bubblegum pink. In the absence of aluminum, it’s cotton candy blue. Gardeners adjust the colors by tweaking the soil pH—acidic soil promotes blue colors and basic promotes pinks.

All photos courtesy iStock unless otherwise noted.

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Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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