When you’re hungry, where do you search for food? If you answered the refrigerator or grocery store, you have it pretty easy.
What if you lived in the wild? How would you find the foods you love to eat?
Wild animals are very efficient at finding food. Millions of years of evolution have refined the process of foraging and hunting so animals can spend as little energy as possible finding the most nutritious food available. Every species has unique adaptations, or tools and abilities, which help it survive. What are some of the food-finding superpowers of animals who live in Washington?
A ‘see food’ diet
As a human, you often use your eyes when you’re deciding what to eat. One glance can tell you whether something looks delicious or is past its prime. But if you were flying high above the ground, would you be able to spot a sandwich a mile away?
Amazingly, that’s how eagles and many other large birds find their food. They soar at high altitudes while keeping their eyes on the ground. When they spy something that looks scrumptious, they dive down to capture it. Their superpower is their very large eyes, which have built-in magnification, sharp focus and far more light-detecting cells (cones) than human eyes. That means that eagles can resolve tiny details at a great distance and see a broader spectrum of colors.
Bald eagles usually swoop down over lakes and rivers to catch fish, while golden eagles target primarily small mammals on land.
The nose knows
If you were blindfolded, you might be able to follow your nose to a delicious meal – if it was in the same room.
But bears can smell food that is miles away. The inside of a bear’s nose is highly developed, with hundreds of tiny muscles. A bear also has a large olfactory bulb, a part of the brain that analyzes smells. Black bears love to sniff out vegetation, such as berries, nuts and grasses, and a little bit of animal matter, primarily insects and carrion. Grizzly bears eat more meat but also enjoy insects and berries.
A variety of amphibians, reptiles and mammals use their noses as well as another special organ, called a Jacobson’s organ, to enhance their sense of smell. Snakes, including gopher snakes and rubber boas native to Washington, have a special way of using the Jacobson’s organ.
Instead of smelling through their noses, snakes use long, forked tongues to collect scent molecules from the air. After each tongue flick, they analyze those molecules by inserting their tongues into their Jacobson’s organs, located at the base of the nasal cavity. Here, some of the scent molecules bind to receptors, which carry sensory messages directly to the brain. It’s like having a little laboratory inside the roof of your mouth. Snakes rely on the Jacobson’s organ to find their food, usually amphibians, small mammals, fish, young birds and bird eggs.
Raccoons are notorious omnivores and can eat almost anything. Although raccoons have good eyesight, they rely heavily on their nimble and sensitive forepaws to search for food. In the wild, you might find a raccoon resting on a riverbank and handling its food underwater. However, it is a myth that raccoons wash their food; they just like to get their hands wet because it makes their skin even more sensitive, which helps them feel the textures of their food.
A team effort
Some animals work together to track and capture food.
In the wild, gray wolves eat large hoofed mammals such as deer, elk and caribou, as well as some smaller mammals. Gray wolves hunt in packs of seven to eight individuals. These packs are usually family groups consisting of a mated pair, their youngest offspring and a few older siblings.
Those strong social bonds help wolves communicate while they’re hunting. To catch a meal, they first target a mammal that is weaker than the rest of its pack, usually a young, old or sick individual. Then, they separate it from the pack by chasing the animal to exhaustion, cornering it or driving it into a trap.
By working together and communicating, wolves can catch animals that can run much faster than a single wolf. In this case, social intelligence could be considered the adaptation that allows a gray wolf to catch its favorite food.
One of the most fascinating ways to find food is with echolocation. Many bats, the only mammals that truly fly, use this special technique to track down their favorite food of insects.
A hungry bat emits high-pitched sounds — too high-pitched for humans to hear — that travel through the air and bounce off solid objects. The further away the object, the longer it takes for the sound wave to bounce back. Bats are so adept at listening to echoes that they can pinpoint the exact location and distance of a tiny, fluttering insect. The most common bat in Washington is the little brown bat, which can eat up to 3,000 insects in one night.