Natural rulebreakers

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While usually considered to be herbivores, muskrats feed on a range of animals, including mussels, fish, and small turtles.

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Nature always surprises me. That’s one of my favorite things about it. It’s unpredictable and exciting. I never know what I am going to stumble across while out on a walk, or while reading up on an animal, even one I thought I was familiar with.

Recently, I’ve been compiling educational information about ACNC’s animal ambassadors. While doing this research, I came upon a surprising fact. We have a few small turtles in our ambassador family including three spotted turtles. In compiling information for them, I learned a surprising fact. One of their predators is the muskrat. Wait, a muskrat? I thought they were herbivores, like most of their relatives in the rodent family.

It turns out that while muskrats are mostly herbivorous, they are also known to eat other animals, including mussels, insects, and fish, along with small turtles. This got me thinking, who are the other rebellious rulebreakers in nature? These creatures defy the rules and our expectations.

So, we have an herbivore that eats meat. Are there carnivores that eat plants? It turns out that this is actually quite common. Many species in the canine family, while considered to be carnivores, do eat plants on occasion. Wolves and coyotes are known to eat berries and fruits, or grass and other vegetation. Growing up, my family dog’s favorite treat was carrots. While at the time, I thought this to be an effect of domestication, it turns out her love of carrots could have come all the way from her wild ancestors.

What other rules do animals break? As I tell students, there are always exceptions to rules in nature, even if we don’t know what those exceptions are. So, what other animals defy our expectations and break the rules we thought we knew.

The first that comes to mind are owls, the prowling, silent hunters of the night. They are known as nocturnal, secretive animals that are rarely seen. Well, it turns out that this isn’t strictly true. While most owls are nocturnal, using their keen sense of hearing and large eyes to hunt for prey at night, there are some owls that go against the grain and hunt during the day.

One local winter species, the Short-eared Owl, is known to be active during the day. While it does hunt at night, it is known to be just as active during the day, especially when there is an abundance of daytime prey animals, such as voles. These owls will hunt when the food is awake, and unlike other owls, they don’t limit themselves to the darkness of night. Snowy Owls and Burrowing Owls are also known to be active during daylight hours, defying the nocturnal owl stereotype.

Animals break rules all the time, but we can’t forget about the flora of the world, and the rule-breaking plants. Two immediately come to mind: Skunk Cabbage and Pitcher Plants.

Skunk Cabbage has many interesting adaptations, but my favorite is its ability to produce heat, something that is not normally expected of plants. Skunk Cabbage defies these expectations and, like humans and other warm-blooded animals, is able to produce heat of its own. This comes in handy as it is an early bloomer and will often melt the snow around it as its flowers emerge. This makes sure that the fresh blooms are not blanketed in a sheet of snow and accessible to pollinators. On average, the temperature inside a Skunk Cabbage bloom is about 20 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature around it.

Pitcher Plants are similar in their expectation-defying antics, but in this case, it isfrom their food. Most plants produce their own food using photosynthesis. Some plants, like Ghost Pipes, are parasites that don’t produce their own food, but instead tap into an elaborate web of fungus that get their food from the roots of trees and steal from them. Pitcher plants eat meat. They eat small invertebrates such as flies, ants, spiders, and wasps, as well as small vertebrates such as young salamanders. Their prey falls into their pitcher-shaped leaves, where they drown in collected rainwater and are digested by a host of microorganisms who call the pitcher plant home. While still capable of photosynthesis, the majority of nutrients the pitcher plants need come from their prey.

While there are many creatures that follow the so-called rules of nature, it’s important to remember that breaking the rules is equally natural. It’s what makes nature so interesting and enticing and keeps us going back for more.

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Natural rulebreakers

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