Come with me to a world where huge swarms of animals don't have to be terrifying! Some animals get exponentially cuter as they get together in bigger and bigger groups. Here's the science behind the most adorable animal flash mobs you could ever hope to be caught in.
Top Image: Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
For most of their lives, blue jays are irascible, territorial animals that will chase away their fellows. They don't like sharing resources or space. But when a terrible crime occurs, it's time to gather together and make sure it doesn't happen again. Scientists tested wild blue jays' responses to various objects on the ground. Blue pieces of wood they ignored. A stuffed owl they avoided. A stuffed jay they zoomed up to, considering it an intruder.
But when the scientists put a dead blue jay on the ground, things started getting weird. When another jay spotted the body, it flew up into a tree and started making a shrill call. If no one responded, it flew higher and called louder. Eventually, a large group of jays gathered around the body, all making the same shrill call. Scientists call this behavior a "funeral," but they really speculate that the jays are really spreading the alarm. The birds think there's a predator in the area, and they aren't going to let being bright blue and the size of a tennis ball stop them from finding the culprit. It's time to spread some bird justice. Cutely.
When you walk down the street on Halloween, do you see kids dressed as aphids? Locusts? Flies? No. You see kids dressed as ladybugs, every year, because ladybugs are the cutest. Remember this when you see tens of thousands of them descend on your land. Although you're more likely to encounter one or two of them at a time than a huge swarm, ladybugs do swarm frequently. They group together for warmth, so on plants they look like red berries. In the sun and when they're on the hunt for bugs, they can look like faint orange-red smoke swirling in the air. They're poisonous to birds, who leave them alone, and merciless predators to aphids, so most farmers and gardeners love them - they stay in aphid-rich places for months at a time, performing the world's most endearing massacre.
Image: John Fowler
Bennett's Wallabies are solitary, nocturnal creatures that cluster around the coastal scrub of Eastern Australia. So it's interesting that people run into groups of them on the island of Inchonnachan in the famous Loch Lomond of Scotland. And also on Lambay Island off the coast of Ireland. Or in the south of England. Or in the forests just outside of France. Most of these are zoo animals that escaped or - in an example of how much zoo management has changed over the years - were released into the wild. Some escaped private owners. For whatever reason, they seem to flourish in odd places in Europe, and although they are solitary most of the time, seasonal surpluses of food bring them temporarily together in large troupes, or mobs - both official names for groups of wallabies. And of course it's not a rave without The Man coming down on it. Some groups are arguing for the capture of these wild wallaby mobs to protect native species, but for now they are allowed to occasionally get together to eat, mate, and fight the power.
Image: Glen Fergus
Those monkeys are so adorable they make you want to shriek into your hand and point at the screen, aren't they? You know what else they are? Mean. Those monkeys sitting there on the edge of the hot spring aren't there because they don't like the water. If they go in, they'll get thrown out. Flash mobs aren't just about gathering everyone together, they're also about bonding a social group - everyone who is on the same wavelength gets in on the activity, and everyone who isn't misses out. The Japanese macaques do live in a society, but one that is usually scattered around a forest looking for food. When they get together in a big group for an afternoon soak, they don't allow everyone in. They gather together the highest-status females (they're matriarchal) and go hot tubbing in big, but exclusive, groups.
The entire hot tubbing phenomenon is odder than most people know. The monkeys are taking advantage of human facilities to do this. They first got leisure time in the 1940s, when scientists gave them food in order to lure them close enough to study their society. The macaques weren't hot tubbers then, because the hot springs weren't the right temperature to enjoy. It was only when people changed the temperature of the tubs that monkeys decided to get in and enjoy a soak as well. Today, scientists frown on food hand-outs for wild animals, so these flash mobs might not be just limited in time, and in the number of animals allowed to enjoy it, but in history as well. This behavior might once be as dated as the term "flash mob."
Hummingbirds are a bit like monarch butterflies, in that they are tiny aerial creatures that migrate a stupid-long way. Some will actually cross the Gulf of Mexico, while others will just zoom over entire states to get at the best seasonal insects or flowers. It's hard to track something that can move at 30 miles per hour, but can weigh only as much as a penny, so exact migration pattern are relatively unknown. What is known is that a hummingbird will increase its weight by about forty percent prior to flying off on a big journey. Any food that is available is snapped up, which is why some people, randomly along the migration route, will wake up some mornings thinking that their house is being mobbed by angry bees only to find, much to their relief, that hundreds of hummingbirds are draining their hummingbird feeders dry before rushing off to warmer climes.
Skunks are sweet little stinkers, which makes seeing a huge group of them come tumbling out of the crawlspace under your shed a mixed blessing at best. Particularly when some of the skunks start spraying others on your property. It can happen. Skunks are often listed as hibernating animals, but technically they don't go into hibernation. Skunks just power-sleep through the winter, and may even go out looking for food when the weather is relatively warm. That kind of activity burns calories that have to be expended warming them up. The more body heat they have in their den, the less likely it will be that they'll succumb to hypothermia or starvation, so skunks have been known to get together in large groups - provided they find a den big enough to fit them.
There is one condition, the groups are nearly always female. If there is a male in the group, he's like the Highlander. There can be only one. The reason for this becomes obvious when you encounter skunks in the spring. The skunks come out of their dens hungry and ready to mate. Male skunks will walk for miles to find female skunks, which means many skunks can converge on a den (and warm crawl spaces under heated houses make great dens), and start fighting it out with both claws and stink. Although they are cute to look at, unless you're anosmic, this is a mob of adorable animals you'll want to avoid.
Skunk Image: Tom Friedel
Sea turtles are pleasant sights for scuba divers, and a great way to control jellyfish populations, but they're not strong in the parenting department. They bury their eggs in the sand and head off to sea, trusting that their offspring will do the same when they hatch. As a result, what turtle hatchlings make survive to hatch have to dig their way out of a hole in the sand, and then flop desperately towards the ocean. They tend to do this as a group because it minimizes their chance of getting eaten by predators.
These little things are so adorable that in Suddenly Last Summer, a film written by Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, the fact that predators consumed them was used as evidence that God was savage and without love. Today, in many areas, humans are fixing the odds in the hatchlings' favor. Conservation groups collect the eggs of the more endangered turtles and let them out near the ocean, guarding them from predators on their voyage to the sea. So you could actually see this flash mob happen, if you're willing to schedule a visit just right and okay with the group doing the release.
Turtle Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region
If you think that the animal pictured above is the most harmless thing you've ever seen, you'd be pretty close to right. Its name, the gliding leaf frog, informs us of its two strategies for staying alive. The first strategy is looking like a leaf, so nothing tries to eat it. If the first strategy fails, the frog doesn't grip the tree and swing away, it just hurls itself out of the tree and glides to what it hopes will turn out to be safer ground. Given those two strategies, it's clear that leaf frogs won't form an infantry any time soon, and so they hang out alone and invisible in the canopy of Costa Rican forests. Then, once a year, this happens.
Once a year, the tree frogs scuttle down to temporary ponds, gather together in huge groups, and have as dexterous an orgy as they can have, given that they have webbed toes. It turns out, even at their best, that's not very dexterous. It's not helped by the fact that males tend to out-number females. However clumsy they are, the lusty tree frog flash-mobs delight any hikers who happen to stumble on a small pond filled with cute horny frogs. They're then amazed when, as soon as the orgy is over, the frogs disperse and disappear completely into the canopy again.
Image: Brian Gratwicke
Do I really need to include information with this one? We all know where these penguins get together. We all know why they get together. We all know how long they get together. And we know that because there was an Oscar-winning film about it, and there was an Oscar-winning film about it because these things are so. Goddamn. Cute. They're even cute when they're grown up. Look at this:
Wheeeeeeeeeeee! I can fly! Because when you look like this, even the laws of physics give you a pass! It's no wonder so many people are willing to go to Antarctica if those things are just going to be hanging around all day, waiting for a hug. (At least I'm assuming that's what happens when the researchers turn the cameras off.)
Penguin Chick Image: Ian Duffy
Penguin Adult Image: Christopher Michel
Some animals get together to mate. Others gather into groups to raise their young. Not manatees. Manatees will gather into groups solely to engage in "cavorting behavior." Yes, these sentient nautical buoys generally only hang out on their own, or with their calves, but there are times they decide to get together just to play with each other. Sometimes they play follow the leader, getting in single-file lines and mimicking the leader's behavior. Sometimes they body surf in underwater currents, or near the release gates for dams. Whatever they do, they take frequent time outs to, and I'm quoting actual scientists here, "nuzzle" each other. Because when you have a face poised that perfectly on the knife-edge between cute and ugly, you need all the tenderness you can get.
Manatee Image: Reid, Jim P, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
[Via Society for Marine Mammalogy, The Last Place You'd Look for a Wallaby, Hot Tub Monkeys Offer an Eye on Nonhuman Culture, Watch Hundreds of Gliding Leaf Frogs Party (and Mate) in Costa Rica, A Long Winter's Nap, Solitary Birds Gather for Noisy Funerals.]