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The World Around Us

Taking an interest in the outside world is a very rewarding pursuit, as Dr Rowan Mott knows firsthand. The Monash University biologist has long studied the art of nature and animals. Ever since Rowan was of playgroup age he spent long hours exploring his back garden and beyond. He quickly learnt that animals tell us a lot about the world around us. The behaviour and body language of animals inform us about weather change, the seasons and impending danger. They also hold great knowledge about the broader universe and our connect with it. Rowan has joined us to explore the topic of animals further. Have you ever wondered why a tiger moves its ears like that? Read on to find out why and discover more interesting things about the animal kingdom.

When people think of flying animals, the first things that comes to mind are usually birds, bats, and insects. However, there are many other animal groups that move through the air including Australia’s native marsupial gliders (e.g. Sugar Glider), ocean-dwelling flying fish and flying squid, several flying frogs, and even five species of flying snakes. Unlike their bird, bat, and insect counterparts, these lesser known flying species fly in the sense of Buzz Lightyear and fall with style – they rely on gliding flight rather than being able to sustain true, powered flight.

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Whereas birds are often considered to be the true masters of the sky, these animals have also conquered the depths of the ocean, too. Penguins' wings have become specialised for propelling them through water and these have become so effective that one species, the Emperor Penguin, can dive to a depth of more than half a kilometre below the ocean surface. That’s pretty astonishing considering birds can’t breathe underwater. In comparison to other air breathing ocean inhabitants, half a kilometre is nothing. Cuvier’s Beaked Whales have been recorded diving to nearly three kilometres deep! To do this, they hold their breath for more than two hours.

While we are on the subject of whales, another deep diver, the Sperm Whale, is the loudest animal on Earth. It makes very short clicking sounds and uses the echoes for finding food in the darkness of the deep ocean. These clicks are loud enough damage a human’s hearing.

Whales and dolphins, and bats use the echoes from their own sounds to find food, but many other animals find hidden food by using the sounds made by the animals they hunt. There are many examples of adaptation for improving an animal’s ability to hear prey, but few are as obvious as on the head of a Barn Owl. The Barn Owl has a very flat face which is shaped like a dish for funnelling sound to its ears, but that is not the Barn Owl’s only super-hearing trick. Each ear is located at a slightly different height on its head. The left are is positioned closer to the top of its head than the right ear, and the left ear points slightly downwards whereas the right ear points slightly upwards. Together, the position of each ear means that sounds arrive at each ear at slightly different times meaning the owl can determine very accurately which way the sound is coming from.

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Although hearing is the obvious use for ears, many animals have put their ears to work for other tasks. The huge ears of an African Elephant or a Fennec Fox help them to cool down. Their ears are quite thin and this means that the warm blood flowing through them can easily transfer heat to the air. Other animals, such as the tiger, use their ears as a visual signal of mood. If ever you see a tiger with its ears twisted backwards you could very well be in a lot of trouble because this is a sign of aggression.

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Photography courtesy of Rowan Mott
Words by Sinead Halliday and Rowan Mott