Garb and Decoration in Animals

We are not alone to wear make-up and decorate ourselves

Narcissus fell in love with his mirror image and, so the myth tells us, was transformed into a flower. We humans (note the non-sexist general term “humans”) spend an inordinate amount of time looking into mirrors, donning attractive outfits, covering pimples with make-up, wearing perfumes, and doing all sorts of things to enhance our appearance. Where did this vanity come from? Are there animals decorating themselves and wearing make-up?

Many species will, of course, want to present themselves to a potential mate from their best and most attractive side, displaying their reproductive organs or secondary sexual characteristics to the fullest. But while some birds may decorate nests and mating grounds, I am not aware of any species putting foreign objects into their feathers to appear more grandiose. However, I’ve seen photographs of apes with leaves, flowers, and even banana skins on their heads, but whether the objects were placed there for purposes other than fun or boredom is unclear. The sand and dust, however, that elephants blow onto their backs with their trunks and elephant seals throw on to themselves with their flippers (as I have seen them do when I visited South Georgia) do have a function. These massive animals when exposed to the radiation from the sun, just like humans, are in danger of getting sunburnt and the dirt on their backs protects them against this. Pigs probably wallow in the mud for the same reason (and also to protect themselves against the onslaught of bloodthirsty mosquitoes), but certainly not because they love to be smelly.

The habit of some humans of using perfumes, however, does have a parallel in the animal kingdom: foxes and dogs sometimes roll in rotten carcases and even dung and they do that to cover their own specific body odour, so that they have a chance to approach their prey more closely without being smelled and detected. To minimise the hazard of being noticed and attacked a variety of creatures use a different strategy: they cover part of their body. There are first of all the so-called “decorator crabs”, small, harmless crustaceans that go by the name of Majoidea and attach bits of algae, sea-shells, and sea anemones as well as other objects to their carapace. They can conceal themselves so successfully that even the trained eye of a marine biologist has trouble recognizing them lest they move.

Sea urchins, too, frequently place small pebbles and other inanimate objects between their spines to appear less conspicuous (not that many animals would attack them anyway), but hermit crabs go a step further and wear ready-made “barrel-suits”, i.e., empty snail shells. Covering up is also the rule in aquatic caddis fly nymphs and terrestrial bag moth caterpillars, both of which construct magnificent little cases that these insects carry around wherever they go and use to hide in when danger approaches. Could our human ancestors have learned from these and other animals? If the first clothes were pubic aprons, were they perhaps meant to emphasize rather than conceal the reproductive organs? Or could clothes rather than protecting us against the vagaries of the weather and could perfumes rather than to help attracting a mate have been “invented” for reasons of camouflage to facilitate our survival in the presence of predators or aid in food acquisition? Food, for thought, isn’t it?

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2019.
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