ECOLOGY IS IN THE YELLOW PAGES

by Whit Gibbons

August 20, 2005


Looking for a class assignment related to the environment? Or just looking for a way to entertain yourself at home without the Internet? Pick up the old-fashioned Yellow Pages, and play the game of seeing how many of the services and products advertised in some way mimic plants or animals. How close are our own daily activities to the natural biological world? A few are uniquely human, but not many.

I did not have to go beyond the A's to find connections to nature--Airlines, Air-conditioning, and Advertising. Each has its counterpart in the natural world. An airplane is simply a means of transportation. For centuries plants have depended on the airline service of insects to transport pollen from one flower to another. Air-conditioning is definitely not restricted to human use either. Honeybees will wave their wings in unison to fan a hive during extremely hot weather, lowering the temperature several degrees. But the most widespread phenomenon of the three is advertising itself. In the natural world we find false advertising as well as advertising directed toward a particular audience. And as with warning labels (and some of today's political messages) advertisement is often used to caution the audience.

Like humans, other organisms make effective use of color and sound in their advertisements. One obvious use of color is that of brightly colored flowers. Their customers are insects, essential for pollination; the advertised product is nectar for the insect. Male birds, frogs, and katydids use sound to advertise to females their availability for mating.

Many animals rely on chemicals known as pheromones to advertise their location to members of the opposite sex. Pheromones are used by female moths to attract males prior to mating. Each species of moth produces a different pheromone, and the height of false advertising comes from bolas spiders that produce chemicals that mimic moth pheromones. To ensure a wide selection of mealtime choices, the spiders fill the night air with chemicals that include the critical ingredients of numerous moth species, a generic perfume guaranteed to attract male moths.

Advertising scams are practiced by many species in search of a meal. A baby copperhead has a bright yellow tail that contrasts with the rest of its body camouflaged among autumn leaves. Upon seeing the slowly waving tail, small lizards or frogs foresee a quick meal in the form of a worm. Instead, they become a meal themselves to the unseen con artist.

Humans rely heavily on lights for advertising, as do some animals such as the lightning bugs seen in backyards across the United States. The males blink their lights in a code that indicates they are available for courtship. To attract the male, the female firefly, who also has a light, returns the signal from her location on the ground or vegetation. Because many species are often active at the same time and place, the fireflies obey that well-known advertising maxim: Know Your Audience. The codes of the different species vary, thus preventing mating mix-ups.

False advertising, otherwise known as deception, is common among lightning bugs, especially in tropical situations where several different kinds occur in the same area. Some female fireflies as well as the larvae (which also have lights) eat other species of fireflies. When the male of another species is seen in the night sky, the imposter changes its own coded flashes to mimic the female of the same species as the flying male. When the male flies down, ready for courtship, he finds instead that he is expected for dinner--as the main course.

You have only to read the label of any medicine, cleaning agent, or appliance to realize that warning advertisements are a common phenomenon these days. Such notices are especially common among animals. The tail vibration of a disturbed rattlesnake creates the loud whirring sound that cautions an intruder. The bright red coloration of the red eft salamander of the eastern United States warns that it is poisonous to eat. A snarling bobcat or raccoon sends a pretty clear message that it should be avoided.

Most human products and services are duplicated in nature, and checking out the other 25 letters of the alphabet in the Yellow Pages can be enlightening.



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