Down in Jungleland: The Change Artistes

Down in Jungleland: The Change Artistes

At the heart of life in nature is the desire to adapt and evolve.

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A new beginning: A grey hornbill. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

Out there in nature, there are a host of creatures who, at some time or the other in their lives, go in for wholesale makeovers. Most do it out of necessity, or to make the ladies swoon and not just to look expensively ridiculous (like us).

Take caterpillars, for instance: Their whole agenda in life is to eat, eat and eat. Well, naturally they get burstingly fat, and so, every now and then squirm out of their tights to reveal a brand-new supple outfit. One caterpillar, of the common lime-leaf butterfly, starts life looking like a bird dropping (it puts birds’ off) and then changes to leaf green — the exact shade of the citrus leaves it feeds on. But the final change that caterpillars undergo is a Cinderella one! Suddenly, they stop all their gastronomic orgies and go into a penance-like trance. They emerge after a week as delicate butterflies which will hereto sip only nectar.

Well, some habits die hard, so they will also go for fermented fruit, rum, animal droppings, blood, sweat, tears and mud — but because it’s good for them.

The dragonfly is another change artiste. Eggs hatch under water to give rise to naiads or nymphs which are anything but. They’re underwater Frankensteins, armed with ghoulish fish-hook jack-knife mouths, with which, for two or three years, they terrorise (and consume) small fish, tadpoles and their ilk. Finally, they emerge above water hoisting themselves on to stalks and wriggling out of their nymph outfits to reveal their gorgeous aerial avatars: jewel-eyed
dragonflies with delicately stained transparent wings — and barbed legs. Alas, they are no less dangerous to other flying insects and even their own kind: they are aerial predators par excellence which will patrol their territories like World War I warplanes, slam into their victims at 90 kmph, hold them with their legs, and eat them alive.


In the sea lives the ultimate change artiste: the cuttlefish. It can put on an invisibility cloak, blending into the background or coral reefs so perfectly you or a predator will never know it’s there. Cuttlefish can change some of their colours in one second flat (and, so, give politicians a run for their money!). They do this by a complex process which changes the size of the pigment cells under their skin. Other — metallic colours — take a little longer to change. They use their talent either to escape predators or to lie in ambush for prey.

In the terrestrial world, the chameleon is the best-known of changelings, changing attire to match its background or to catch a prey unaware. Snakes slough their skins regularly and even the shed skins are beautiful.

But there are many males in the animal kingdom that put on fine, dazzling attire to scare away rivals and to impress the ladies. Lizards display colourful flaps like flags; birds take the top spot in this game and turn out in ravishing new silks and satins! Many don’t really change — they simply get rid of last year’s tired rags and grow pristine new feathers. After every monsoon, the peacock sheds its magnificent train and wanders around for months in what would be the peacock equivalent of vest and underwear! But as spring turns to summer, shiny new glad rags are evident. As monsoons break, the bird has a magnificent train.

Alas, there are also those infernal birds that “dress down” for winter and drive birders round the bend. Birds such as sandpipers, stints, and snipe — whom you could tell apart in their Arctic nesting grounds in summer — don similar salt-and-pepper casuals when they fly down to spend the balmy winters with us. In the field, it’ll drive you nuts trying to tell, say, a common snipe from a pintail snipe, unless you have, of course, dedicated your life to this! All birds, in fact, moult their feathers, usually once a year. Some ducks, for example, do so at the end of summer after breeding, which renders them flightless and vulnerable to attack. Other birds are more sensible: kites and hornbills shed their flight feathers two at a time, so that they are not rendered lopsided while flying!

Animals that live in the icy tundra regions of the world have very different summer and winter outfits. The Arctic fox turns polar-bear white in winter, melting into the snow as it trots after a polar bear in the hope of scavenging tidbits from a kill. As the snow melts and the rocky terrain reveals itself, the feisty animal turns brown and grey — matching the rocky terrain of its territory like a commando in camouflage. Some weasels and ferrets also go in for such changes.

And, then, of course, there’s us! In the past, we have whacked plumes off birds for what one can only call bizarre outfits. And what can you say of some of the hats that divas wear at horse races across the world?