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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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