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Saturday, October 16, 2021

It’s a bloody world out there

Ants go to war, spider moms eat babies and elephants can decimate landscapes when angry

Written by Ranjit Lal |
October 14, 2021 11:59:49 am
Lions are supposed to be the regal kings of the jungle but they can also massacre rivals and their cubs, leaving the mothers distressed (credit: Ranjit Lal)

Animal lovers (myself included) often think that animals live unblemished lives. Certainly, many of them have issues with us but take a look at how some of them behave with each other – members of their own kind or different species:

Lions are supposed to be the regal kings of the jungle and good kings have to be just, wise, and merciful. Look at a lion’s noble profile and you will see all these qualities shine through. Yet what is the first thing His Majesty does when he (sometimes with the help of his brothers) ousts a rival king? Massacre that liege’s adorable, fluffy cubs, leaving their mothers distressed – but ah, not for long. For these ladies quickly change affections and start flirting outrageously with the murderers of their kids! This sort of behaviour happens amongst males of a whole lot of species, even the venerable and worshipped langur.

Elephants too are known for their sagacity (apart from occasionally getting drunk on mahua) and live peaceably in matriarch-led herds. But their treatment of the trees they feed on is appalling. If they can’t knock them over to get to the tender-most new leaves on top, they’ll lacerate and rip off huge strips of bark.

Sloth bears, honey badgers and Tasmanian wolves are renowned for their tinderbox tempers and simply self-combust: taking panga is their calling and they don’t care with whom or what or how big the enemy is.

Wolves, seals, walruses, antelope of various species, hippos have harems and guard their ladies ferociously, preventing them from making eyes at other honcho hunks. Chimpanzees and ants go to war – raiding rival camps, killing and eating babies, taking females (chimps) hostage and keeping slaves (ants).

The birds are no less. Crows, gulls and other raptors happily help themselves to the eggs of other birds (a bird-eat egg world!) and some of the nastier gulls even kill the chicks of smaller birds. To say nothing of committing daylight robbery in the skies – ask puffins what happens when they are chased by skuas after a successful fishing trip. Members of the corvid clan (crows, magpies and jays) are famous for conducting search and destroy missions on the homes (and babies) of smaller birds like warblers and doves. Cuckoos (like koels) have their shocking dalliances, and when there’s trouble the lady coolly jettisons her responsibility in the nests of (often smaller) chick-loving species and continues with her wanton ways. Her babies are equally diabolical – ridding the nursery of its rightful babies, by tossing out the eggs or the squirming squabs.

In many avian families, sibling rivalry is literally cutthroat – with the eldest chick stabbing its younger sibling to death (and sometimes eating it), while mom and dad coolly look on.

Something equally terrible happens deep underwater, where the first-hatched of a sand tiger-shark will dine off its smaller siblings and even eggs, while still in its mom’s womb. Reptiles and insects are no less. Mercifully, the queen king-cobra will leave her nest as soon as her babies arrive, else she may just eat them. (King cobras dine exclusively on snakes, even their own species.) Some insects and other creepy crawlies do. A spider mom will eat her babies and her babies will eat each other and their mom if they are hungry enough.

We are berated for our treatment of farm animals but get this: many wasp species lay their eggs on anesthetized caterpillars or spiders. When the eggs hatch, the larvae slowly begins consuming its host alive – in such a way that the vital parts are eaten last (so the ‘meat’ remains fresh longest!)

Spider and praying mantis ladies are even worse: they have a reputation for eating their consorts during the honeymoon itself – ostensibly to provide an extra-helping of protein to the forthcoming young. (It appears the praying mantis has been recently exonerated of this charge.)

Some males you would think deserve this treatment: have you watched ducks trying to mate? Often it’s nothing but gang rape and water-boarding. Male longwing-zebra butterflies hang around the chrysalis of a female, waiting for her to emerge before pouncing on her – and fighting each other – for the privilege of being the first to do so. (And then they plug her up to make sure she has only the victor’s babies.) Inside a fig where fig-wasp eggs have been laid, little boy fig-wasps (really insignificant) hatch first and will barge into the boudoirs (egg cases) of the girls – some who may well be their sisters – to be the first to mate, even before they emerge.

The goody-goody sanctimonious crowd must be holding their heads in their hands by now – but wait a minute. As the most “evolved” species on earth we’ve been there and done it all – for thousands of years. And while the poor fool animals behave thus, without a trace of malice, we do the same with grim premeditation and malicious aforethought.

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