by Whit Gibbons

August 10, 2008

I recently received a phone book and was pleased to see that the Yellow Pages are still part of our culture and have not been completely replaced by the Internet. Examine the Yellow Pages and play a game I have mentioned before. How many services and products can you find that in some way mimic a plant or animal?

I will use the A's to make the point--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. Some birds even make transoceanic flights, and monarch butterflies and hummingbirds travel between Canada and Mexico every year.

Air-conditioning is definitely not restricted to humans. Honeybees will wave their wings in unison to fan a hive during extremely hot weather, lowering the temperature several degrees. Many reptiles and amphibians escape the summer heat by retreating deep into underground burrows that stay as cool as a cave all summer.

Advertising is a widespread phenomenon directed toward a particular audience or for a specific purpose. Organisms of all sorts make effective use of color, sound, and smell in their advertisements. An obvious example comes in the form of brightly colored flowers. Their customers are insects, which are essential for pollination; the advertised product is nectar for the insect. Male birds, frogs, and the katydids of midsummer use sound to advertise to females their availability for mating. Bright red is often a form of advertisement in the animal kingdom that means "stay away." The bright red-and-black, almond-scented millipedes emit the sweet smell of maraschino cherries when picked up, a product of cyanide that is poisonous to would-be predators. These are harmless to pick up if the secretions do not get into cuts or the eyes. But do not confuse them with the bright red centipedes that have fangs that inject venom.

Humans rely heavily on lights for advertising, as do some animals such as the lightning bugs seen in backyards across the United States. Their purpose is not so that children can catch them and carry fireflies home in a jar; the males are blinking 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.

Other A-section entries include Apartments, Archery Equipment, and Adhesives. One only need look at squirrel nests in oak trees or wolf spider burrows on the ground to see that we are surrounded by apartments. Fox dens, woodpecker cavities, and gopher tortoise burrows add to the diversity of apartment dwellings among animals. Although the projectile may be different, the principle is the same in the case of the archer fish of the Philippines that puts its mouth above the surface and squirts water toward an insect on a leaf as much as three feet away, so that it becomes a meal when it falls in. Although the distance is much shorter, the stinging cells of some jellyfish are projectiles that can penetrate the skin of another animal perceived as a threat. As far as adhesives, one need not look far to encounter an impressive array, including pine sap, spider webs, and the skin secretions of woodland salamanders.

With school starting soon, teachers who are looking for a class assignment related to the environment might consider the Yellow Pages ecology game with the rest of the alphabet. How many human services and products parallel what can be found in the natural world? Although most are duplicated in nature, one heading in the A section is uniquely human: Attorneys. Although some do make good friends and relatives, apparently nothing comparable exists among plants or other animals. As far as I can tell, lawyers are not a natural phenomenon.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)