Small but Mighty
Animals range from gigantic to tinier than a speck of dust. Some of the smallest organisms on earth have unique and crucial benefits to our ecosystem, some are just plain peculiar. At Fanimal, we value them all, and during November are honoring critters on the teeny-tinier side.
Hummingbirds are some of Earth’s most interesting avian creatures. Well known for their thirst for sugar water and nectar, these small birds have many unique characteristics that are special to only their species. Hummingbirds range from one to three inches long, weigh less than a nickel, and 95% are indigenous to Mexico or South America, while the rest are native to the United States.They are the only bird who can fly backwards and their wing muscles are about 25% of their body weight! This is very different for birds, which typically average about 15% of their body weight in wing muscle. Hummingbirds use a lot of energy to keep their wings flapping, some species can even travel upwards of 33 miles per hour. It’s been noted that their wings operate similarly to micro helicopter rotors. Hummingbirds migrate northward for spring/summer and southward for winter. This journey consists of over 500 miles in around a 20 hour timespan, flying either through the Gulf of Mexico or through Mexico itself. This independent journey is one of the most miraculous elements of a Hummingbird’s life, and reminds us how these small birds do astounding things.
Coming in at only 1 millimeter long, Tardigrades are a microscopic organism that first were discovered in the 1700’s. Known as ‘mighty water bears’ because their walk emulates that of a bear, they are some of the most resilient creatures on Earth. They typically reside in wet areas like moss or soil, and they are extremely resistant to temperature changes. They can survive in temperatures above boiling point and below freezing point, assisted by their ability to transform into a state called ‘Cryptobiosis’. This dehydrated state is triggered by the Tardigrade curling up and retracting their head and legs into a ball, which is called a tun. This protects the Tardigrades by releasing antioxidants and protecting it’s vital organs, allowing it to survive in unheard of conditions such as radioactive environments and in deep space. When a Tardigrade is entered into water, they tend to leave this state even after years in Cryptobiosis. These tiny beings are certainly one of the most formidable creatures on the planet.
Krill are tiny aquatic creatures that are about the size of a paperclip. Pink and Opaque Krill are the most common. They exist in oceans in the arctic, most commonly in Antarctica. They feed on phytoplankton (another small but mighty animal!), other aquatic plants, and they often swim in the thousands. Swarms of krill can even be seen from space. It is estimated that the amount of Krill in the world outweighs (in pounds) the amount of people on Earth. They are an integral part of the Antarctic ecosystem – penguins, seals, fish, whales, and other animals consistently feed on Krill. Krill also assist with moving nutrients from ocean sediment to rise and be accessible to other aquatic life. It’s also shown that Krill absorb some of our carbon emissions, amounting to about a quarter percent of our current total CO2 output. A recent decline in ice-algae (their main food source) due to temperature rise and shrinking sea ice has afflicted the Krill population, causing concern that species of penguins and other predators may also suffer population decline. Increased demand for Krill products is also concerning, as they are used in items like fish food and nutritional supplements like Krill oil. More stringent regulations of Krill fishing is an important step to mitigating population loss, as these creatures are some of the most interesting and hard-working animals supporting the global ecosystem.
Bats are crucial pollinators, seed dispersers, and invasive species mitigators. While there are many species of bats, they share many of these same common characteristics. Nocturnal by nature, bats are unusual because they are the only mammal that can fly, and they use their unique echolocation abilities to track each other and hunt prey. Chiropterophily is a term used to describe bats pollination which affects over 500 species of plants. Fruit and nectar bats are the primary sources of pollination for fruits like mangos and bananas. Little brown bats, a common species in North America, can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects per hour. Despite our best efforts, bat populations are also on the decline. They suffer from a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome that prevents them from storing enough energy to survive through winter. This has caused an 80% decrease in bat populations in the United States. Some communities have taken up “Bat Box” initiatives – building a habitat for bats which can protect them or keep them warm, which reduces the energy loss from harsh winters. These bat homes can be made by anyone with a few simple items like plywood, 2×4’s, screws, and household tools. Other things to keep in mind to help support a healthy bat population is not using pesticides in gardens and allowing weeds and wild plants to grow. While there are things that can be done to subvert this disease, education is important for increasing awareness of the benefits bats contribute to our ecosystems.
We’ve talked about the critical role of Bees in other articles, but their importance should not be understated. Averaging about 15 millimeters in size, they are one the smallest and most important insects to our food supply. As essential pollinators, honey bees pollinate around 80% of US crops, and they are responsible for directly or indirectly pollinating about a third of food produced. This difference in percentages, around 40%, is attributed to an increase in crop yield due to bee pollination, but this pollination is not essential for these plants to simply grow. Bees’ pollination efforts do help produce superior quality fruits and vegetables compared to non-pollinated ones, and this contributes to better and more bountiful harvests. Honey bees are becoming more rare due to factors like climate change, pesticide use, and loss of habitat. For example, during the Zika Virus crisis in 2016, the pesticide dropped from planes that would help get rid of mosquitoes carrying the virus accidentally killed millions of bees in South Carolina. To keep bees safe, it’s suggested to not use pesticides in gardens, and not weeding until later on in the spring after bees have had a chance to feed on some of these natural plants. Lastly, remember that bees are not here to harm us; they are here to help us thrive through pollinating and providing a variety of food for us to consume.
One thing that seemed common among these tiny creatures supporting everyday life is their future existence. It is important in the coming years to recognize the challenges these animals face and change our lifestyles so that we may live in harmony with other creatures on the planet and furthermore support the global ecosystem and food chains that we depend on.
Sources: Discover Wildlife, Live Science, UC Davis, Journey North, Telegraph UK, Quark Expeditions, Public Radio International, National Geographic, AnimalDiversity.org, Bats Without Borders, Earth Rangers, Science Mag, Genetic Literacy Project, Bats.org.uk, Washington Post, Climate.gov, Pew Charitable Trusts, Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, American Beekeeping Federation, BBC, World Bee Day, New York Bee Sanctuary, Sustainweb.org, Michigan Public Radio, Goliath.com, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, White Nose Syndrome.org