By Joy H. Montgomery, Animal Planet
It’s always chow time in the animal kingdom, and while some creatures just devour whatever they kill, others take a little more time to prepare a meal. In fact, some of their routines are very similar to the cooking techniques humans use. Although food processers, knives, blenders and canning tools aren’t in an animal’s culinary repertoire, they do employ some rather ingenious methods that seem to work just as well. From a bird that kabobs its food to one that has a very interesting food preservation technique, here are 10 of the most unusual animal gourmets, who prove they’re executive chefs in their own ways.
10. Giant Anteater
Although they might seem like vacuum cleaners, collecting ants like crumbs with one big sniff of their snout, it’s not quite that easy for giant anteaters. To capture a meal, first these mammals use their large claws to open a colony or tree trunk. From there, they must act quickly, because the tiny insects they’re feasting on don’t go down without a fight and could sting them.
What look like really long noses are actually anteaters’ jaws, so they aren’t snorting ants at all. Instead, they use their long tongues to collect their meals. According to the Smithsonian National Zoo (SNZ), giant anteaters’ tongues are 2 feet (.6 meters) long and their saliva acts as glue, which makes it easy to gather up their tiny victims quickly. Instead of teeth, anteaters have hard growths on the inside of their mouths that act like food processors, crushing insects as they are consumed. SNZ also reports some anteaters have been known to swallow small stones that continue the crushing process in their stomachs. At one sitting, giant anteaters can eat a few thousand insects within minutes, so they need all the kitchen aid they can get.
9. Leafcutter Ant
Leafcutter ants are different from other species of ants in the way they make their food. In fact, according to the Chicago-based Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZ), these ants are the first animals known to cultivate their own crops like farmers. They get their name because of their ability to cut leaves from trees with their scissor-like mandibles. Once leaves are cut, each ant carries a leaf back to the colony where the leaves are added to a pile, similar to a compost heap. Worker ants then add their feces or saliva to the leaves, which acts as a kind of fertilizer to help the leaves grow fungus. They later use the resulting fungus to feed ant larvae. While the baby ants eat the nutrient-rich fungus, adult ants feast on sap that’s also produced from the leaves.
8. Nursery Web Spider
The male nursery web spider’s mating ritual includes a recipe for romance. He knows it takes more than just showing up on a girl’s web to mate with her, so this eight-legged Casanova goes above and beyond. The spider will take an insect that’s landed in his web and wrap it tightly in silk like a beautiful gift. Once the male nursery web spider sets his sights on a mate, he takes the silk-wrapped insect and presents it to his ladylove. While the female nursery web spider enjoys — and is distracted by — this tasty treat, the male makes his move and mates with her. Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, and a male spider might wrap up a non-edible object, like a small pebble, if an insect can’t be found. This gift is still accepted by the female, but the male has to act fast because she will attack when she unwraps the offering and realizes his act of deception.
Image credit: SMB(spidermanbryce) via Flickr
7. Egyptian Vulture
The Egyptian vulture could be compared to “freegans,” which are people who try to live a consumer-free lifestyle by dumpster diving for discarded food products. This bird employs similar tactics to find its sustenance. The Egyptian vulture doesn’t have a sense of smell, and relies on its vision to locate food. It will dumpster dive for fruits and vegetables and has even been know to eat feces. Although this vulture doesn’t seem to have a refined palate, it does employ a special technique to crack eggs that earns him high culinary marks. In fact, the Egyptian vulture is the only bird that eats eggs. It prefers ostrich eggs, but they are too big to pick up, so this bird takes rocks in his mouth and throws them at the egg until the shell breaks. Then, the Egyptian vulture feasts on the gooey center.
Image credit: Steve Snodgrass via Flickr
The smile of a crocodile is one of its most recognizable features, but these scaly reptiles have never had table manners and don’t use their teeth for chewing their food properly. Instead, they use their large chompers to catch and hold prey in a death grip before swallowing it whole. Of course, this tactic only works on small animals, so crocodiles use their teeth and jaws like blenders on larger victims. They will grind up their super-sized meals until the food has been broken down into more manageable bites, and if the crocodiles dine on hard-shelled creatures, their teeth act like nutcrackers — breaking the shells to get to the meaty center.
5. Red Squirrel
Just like its gray cousin, the red squirrel gathers nuts and grains during the summer and fall in preparation for winter, but this bushy-tailed woodland creature has one other trick up its sleeve when winter rations begin to run low. It bites into the side of a maple tree, poking holes in the bark and then waits for the sweet maple syrup to drip from the tree’s center. After the syrup has dried on the tree bark, the red squirrel will return to lick the sweet residue. According to Bernd Heinrich, a naturalist and author of “Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival,” this is an excellent survival strategy, since the syrup gives a needed boost of energy during the winter when other food sources are scarce.
4. Japanese Macaque
Don’t expect the Japanese macaque to eat just any old food it picks up off the ground. This animal is more civilized than the average monkey. Also called a snow monkey, the small primate is native to Japan and eats a large variety of foods, including plants, insects and fruits. What makes mealtime so interesting with these creatures is that they wash their food before eating it. Researchers discovered this when they left sweet potatoes on the beach for a group of macaques. One female took a potato and washed it off in the water before eating it, and the rest of the macaques followed suit. The ocean water not only cleans the food, but the salt in it offers seasoning, too. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto would approve.
3. Northern Shrike
Anyone who’s ever eaten corn on the cob knows how handy those little corn-shaped skewers are at making it easier to chow down, and one clever bird employs a similar method to handle its meals. The Northern shrike, a songbird mostly found in southern Canada and the northern United States, captures insects and other small vertebrates and then skewers them onto thorns, spiny stalks or even barbed wire fences. These sharp objects make eating a lot easier for the shrike, as he can take off what he wants in small pieces and return later for more. According to Cornell University, the shrike also uses this method so it can eat poisonous insects. After sliding its victim onto the skewer, it waits a few days for the toxins to dry out and then returns to feast on its catch.
Image credit: fwooper via Flickr
2. Burying Beetle
This beetle’s food preparation method is so unique, it was named for the process. The idea behind the technique the burying beetle uses is similar to how a human might preserve items through canning or freezing, to keep food fresh while halting the growth of bacteria. When the beetle finds a dead bird or rodent, it immediately sets about preparing the meal for its young. First, it covers the carcass in oral secretions that are antibacterial and antifungal and slow the decaying process. Next, the beetle digs a hole for the carcass and lines the area with the fur or feathers it stripped from the dead animal. Then, it puts the preserved carcass in the tomb and digs a nest for its own baby beetles right next door, so that the larvae can feed on the carcass easily. This entire preservation process takes only about eight hours, making your grandma’s all-day canning sessions seem extra long.
Image credit: kebman via flickr
No countdown about animals and food would be complete without paying homage to the honeybee. This striped bee is the only insect that produces food available for human consumption, and it didn’t earn the name “worker bee” for nothing. In order to make honey, field honeybees collect nectar from flowers and return to the hive where worker bees take the nectar and begin to process it into honey by evaporating water from the nectar. This process can take a while, since they have to eat and then regurgitate the nectar repeatedly until it becomes honey. Like the other animals on this list, honeybees prove that being an animal gourmet isn’t easy, but the results are often well worth it.
Image credit: Kevy 3534 via flickr