Many animals unfortunately suffer from a rather negative image in human culture, regarded by us as frightening, disgusting or just plain lowly. Nature, however, has no “vermin” or “pests” – all things have their place in the natural order of things, and in most cases, the benefits of an organism far outweigh its (accidental) inconveniences. Even animals many of us find “ugly” are only demonstrating the perfect body shape for their particular ecological niche. Open up your mind a little, and you just might find some beauty in something that once made your skin crawl.
Millions of people the world over suffer from a fear of snakes, and even those who don’t may kill the limbless reptiles on sight, fearing for the safety of their pets or children. This is most unfortunate, as only around fifteen percent of known snakes possess venom at all, and dangerous species can be easy to distinguish with a little research. Wherever you may live, there are likely only a few distinct varieties worthy of extreme caution, and as the saying goes, they’re more afraid of us than we are of them. The last thing a snake wants to do is waste its precious venom on something it can’t even eat, so unless startled or cornered, snakes will nearly always attempt to flee and hide before actually striking. It’s still easy to vilify a slithering, unblinking serpent as it strangles and engulfs a pudgy little tweety bird, but even “cute” animals like songbirds are often lethal predators to still smaller creatures. It’s important to remember the role hunters play in saving the very species they prey upon from the starvation, disease and inbreeding that comes with an uncontrolled population.
9. Black Widows
We’ve always heard that the black widow is one of the deadliest spiders in the world, but while this is more or less true, it’s just not saying much. Completely unaggressive towards larger creatures, widow bites are quite rare, and lethal bites are even rarer – those at risk are normally only infants, the elderly or those suffering some pre-existing medical conditions. They’re still creepy though, right? With that whole “devouring the male” thing. Yeah, about that…of the 31 species of Latrodectus or “widow” spider, only two species have been observed eating their mates at all, neither of which are the famous red-hourglass black widow, and the cannibals in question were likely just frightened by their gigantic human voyeurs. Though the male is weak and snack-sized, the larger female normally allows him to escape or even hang around in her web a while, where her presence makes him a tad safer from an assortment of spider-eating things.
The only thing most people know about termites is that they eat wood, and we like to live in wood, so that’s bad. Many organisms can make a nuisance of themselves by colonizing a human dwelling, but only termites can outright destroy one from the inside, costing us billions of dollars in damages each year. As far as nature is concerned, however, dead wood is nothing more than a fire hazard standing in the way of fresh growth, and nothing in the wild mulches a dead tree as quickly and thoroughly as a termite colony. Working together with fungi, bacteria and an assortment of other wood eating insects, termites are integral in the continued health of every forest on the planet. It’s hardly their fault that we like to build houses out of perfectly good food…the little guys don’t even have eyes, cut them some slack.
It’s a classic image of horror: mangy, greasy rats crawling out of the decaying human corpse they’ve been gnawing at. Rats have had a reputation as filthy, dirty carrion-eaters ever since they were blamed for the dreaded bubonic plague, but while the disease is indeed carried primarily by the fleas of rodents, cases are rare today and many experts argue that it was not responsible for the infamous “black death“. Rats are also quite shy, highly unlikely to bite and can be very rewarding pets, demonstrating much more intelligence and affection than such dumber, nippier rodents as hamsters and guinea pigs. As for corpse-eating, scavenging decayed meat is actually rather low on a rat’s list of dietary preferences.
Millions of people suffer from a fear of wasps, as some species seem needlessly aggressive and are well known for their painful, venomous stings. A majority of wasp species, however, are unable to actually sting us humans or even lack stings entirely, and venomous or not, they play a tremendously important role both as pollinators and in the control of other insect species, regulating their populations far better than almost any other predator. Many trees and plants are even capable of *communicating* with wasps, releasing chemical signals to attract just the right wasps for whatever pests might be munching their foliage. Incidentally though, those plant-eating insects are important themselves; as long as they’re kept in check by wasps and other predators, their natural pruning service can maintain a strong, healthy plant population. When wasps do attack us larger mammals, it’s often because our own fear makes us appear more aggressive, and social wasps will risk it all when they feel their defenseless young are threatened. Mind your own beeswax around buzzing bugs, and they probably will too. Only maybe more literally.
One of nature’s most feared predators, sharks are generally portrayed by the media as ravenous, unfeeling jaws and teeth that happen to have animals attached to them. World-wide, however, the typical year sees under a dozen human deaths by shark attack, as opposed to thousands of deaths by drowning or other swimming accidents. Sharks are quite a bit more intelligent than most people give them credit for, and often avoid prey as unfamiliar as humans. Predation by sharks is of great importance to the health of fish populations, maintaining the balance necessary for many different species to thrive in the same environment, and they’re far from brainless eating machines – some species even demonstrate play behavior and sharks in captivity may be possible to “tame.”
What…you thought all of these were going to be *negative* misconceptions? Many of us unfortunately have it in our heads that while Sharks are mindless, ravenous eating machines, Dolphins are sweet, playful little sea-people, ready to protect us from those big, bad sharks and do fun tricks for our amusement. Dolphins, however, are predators themselves; lethally powerful, cunningly intelligent, fiercely territorial, pack hunting flesh-eaters. Animals live by very different rules, and while it isn’t fair to categorize them as “good” or “bad,” it’s hard to find dolphins very cute when they have been observed tormenting, killing and even sexually assaulting other animals for often unclear reasons, including young pups of their own species, and attacks on humans are by no means unheard of.
Maybe they’re only smiling so much at their own perverse fantasies.
Ewww, cockroaches! Everyone hates cockroaches! They’re dirty, nasty, parasites who only exist to live in our garbage, right?! Can there possibly be anything good about them? Do I still have to answer that at this point? The order Blattodea has over 30,000 known species, yet only around a dozen or so have the special characteristics to thrive in our homes – characteristics which make them useful scavengers in the wild. Most roaches prefer a more conventional insect life outdoors, where they help to recycle decaying vegetation, pollinate plants, and in some cases even prey on more harmful insects. Even those few “pest” species aren’t as filthy as you think…in fact, they’re only ever as filthy as their surroundings, and they’re just as likely to live in perfectly sanitary conditions as in decaying garbage. House roaches only have the potential to spread disease primarily by walking through something germ-ridden (like an unkempt kitchen trash bin) and accidentally tracking it onto your food, which is actually rather unlikely; germs don’t cling to their bodies all that easily, and the little neat-freaks groom themselves almost constantly. Yes, believe it or not, roaches practice better hygiene than a lot of humans.
The very thought of fly larvae squirming around in a corpse is difficult for some people to stomach. It seems like they’re often regarded as one of the most nauseating, abhorrent organisms in nature, largely due to the whole “squirming around in corpses” thing, but the same reasons people detest them are the same reasons they shouldn’t. A dead body is a ticking time bomb of contagious diseases, and no other scavenger can even come close to the importance of maggots. Everything about these little critters – shape, size, squirminess, sliminess and even that ghostly pale coloration – is adapted for maximum efficiency carcass removal, scouring every nook and cranny of a skeleton for the tiniest scraps of soft tissue. Thanks to maggots, most carcasses only lie around in the wilderness for a few weeks before only bones remain, while other processes of decomposition would have them festering for months. Maggot activity is even somewhat antiseptic, destroying the bacteria they’re basically competing with for food. The bottom line is…would you rather every animal dropping dead every moment of every day nourish several hundred flies or several million Anthrax bacteria?
“Parasites” is admittedly a pretty damn broad umbrella. You can find them within every phylum of every kingdom of life on our planet, they easily outnumber non-parasitic or “free living” lifeforms and almost nothing lives entirely free from their influence. The very word “parasite” is associated with uselessness, and even science was once guilty of the belief that parasites were “lower” on the evolutionary ladder. Today, however, biologists are waking up to the incredible sophistication and significant ecological impact of parasitic organisms. Nearly every wild animal on this planet has parasites feeding and breeding inside it as we speak, influencing the host’s health and even behavior to better suit their needs. It may sound disturbing, but as this has been going on since the dawn of life as we know it, it should have always been obvious that they’re as much a part of nature’s delicate balance as any other form of life, even regulating entire food webs and possibly influencing evolution itself. Most have adapted to cause as little harm to hosts as possible (why kill your own delicious, delicious house?) and even those that haven’t are still playing their part in population control. Parasites are just the eyeless, brainless little governors of ecoville, working hard on the inside to keep those cheetahs running on time.