by Whit Gibbons

February 12, 2017

Back when a phone booth was where Clark Kent went to don his Superman costume, inside each booth hung a phone directory. At the back of the directory was an alphabetical list of advertisements collectively known as the Yellow Pages. Today, few people have access to printed Yellow Pages. But advertisements are ubiquitous, which means you can still play what I call the Yellow Pages Game.

The rules are simple. How many advertised services and products can you find that parallel activities in nature? In other words, what advertisements targeted for people mirror the actions of plants and animals? A few, such as ads for legal services, are uniquely human, but not many.

We need not look beyond ads for the home to find countless examples. Heating and cooling, home security, house construction, all these are represented in the natural world. Take, for example, air-conditioning. Definitely not restricted to humans. Honeybees are the consummate climate control experts, maintaining the hive at a near constant temperature year-round. During hot weather, selected worker bees place water droplets in the hive and wave their wings in unison. Fanning the hive in that way can lower the temperature several degrees. During winter, workers become “heater bees,” continually flexing their muscles isometrically to warm the hive.

Home security is essential throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. Honeybees, wasps and hornets are on constant guard against intruders and have the weapons to defend their homes. A plant’s home is the plant itself, and numerous plants produce toxins or thorns that ward off many of their predators. Sensitive mimosa plants have what is equivalent to an alarm system. When a stem is disturbed by a hungry insect, the leaves can rapidly fold up, which may startle the insect into leaving. Some acacia trees of Africa have an association with ants that live on them and protect the trees from plant-eating insects. The ants attack an invading beetle or aphid that plans to make a meal of acacia leaves. The ants, meanwhile, get their nutrients from the acacia tree, much like a homeowner might feed his Doberman. Either is a good security system.

Home construction is common to innumerable animals. Honeybees come to mind again, with their elaborate combs of hexagonal cells that serve as storage for honey and for developing larvae and pupae. The American beaver is not to be outdone in home building, with its dams and lodges, and most avian species build something humans would have difficulty duplicating – bird nests. Prairie dog colonies consist of tunnels, passageways and side chambers – the quintessential underground estate.

And what about advertising itself? Do plants and animals advertise? Absolutely. The phenomenon is all around us. As spring arrives, we will see myriad examples in flowers with their colorful displays designed to attract pollinating insects. Lots of fish and lizards are also more brightly colored during mating season. Males of many of the usually drab darters, small fish that have their greatest biodiversity in Alabama, are noted for their spectacular color displays during the breeding season. As with humans, sound is a common advertising tool. Frogs and birds give mating calls in an effort to attract mates. Fireflies, both males and females, use lights to advertise their availability to procreate.

As with our own commercials, false advertising must constantly be guarded against. The deep-sea angler fish produces a light that dangles in front of its mouth and means sure death for a would-be predator trying to grab a morsel in the dark. Pitcher plants use sweet-smelling aromas to lure unsuspecting insects into the trumpet-shaped tube filled with liquid. Bola spiders have their own scam, producing chemicals that mimic the perfume-like pheromones that female moths use to attract mates.

Advertising is a part of life worldwide, and most human merchandise and trades that are advertised are duplicated in nature. Finding analogies can be a fun and enlightening exercise at home or in the classroom.

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