Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Introduction

The King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) – endemic to India and South-East Asia and one of the largest venomous snakes in the world. It’s truly a beauty. They rear up like this, splaying that hood on their necks, and we take it to mean danger! In a way we’re right, this is a defensive posture, that allows the snake to look big, and give it a decent pose from which to strike. We are the danger! The snake is defending itself. Definitely maligned but given they have a cocktail of toxins in their hypodermic-needle like fangs known to kill a person, whether in defence or not, there is some justification to our fear of snakes. I would say the key for conservationists is to turn that fear into respect. (Credit: Michael Allen Smith CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Our two animal lists to this point have had a marked theme in terms of animal grouping, covering both cats and sharks. I suspected either birds of prey or possibly reptiles might have been next but then a chance question causing me to run to the defence of a particular species, sparked a chance conversation in which two absolutely wonderful but much maligned animals were discussed.

I’m not going to spoil the surprise, they will be on the list but there are lots of animals humans just seem to hate! Some of these it is an historic association that lingers, ancestral fears live long in our traditions, our mythologies, folklores, symbolism and cultural miasma can carry hundreds of years. Perhaps there was a time when these animals were a portent, fit to be feared for the implications of their sighting, but those days are long gone.

Perhaps those animals carry with them associations of past traumas, events that assisted in killing swathes of humans across the world, in which case maybe there is some justification in vilifying the poor creature but is that so warranted in a world where even novel viruses can have a vaccine developed for them in 12 months and where bacterial infections require a course of antibiotics to heal?

Look, there are some things that will justifiably not be on this list. Snakes, for example.

An African rock python (Python sebae) constricting a cormorant. What an amazing shot! Look at that absolutely beauty of a snake. Their markings and colouration make them perfect, slinky, camouflage predators and – look at the size of this thing, that cormorant is crushed, not constricted! Snakes are effectively a tube of muscle and constrictors like this even more so. They wrap that muscle in a coil, or coils, around their prey and just squeeze! (Credit: Ray in Manila CC-BY-2.0)

When I was looking for ideas of animals a lot of people hate but others love they came up and, I, too, love snakes. They’re awesome, remarkably diverse in their distribution, especially given that they are a reptile that exists in the Arctic Circle! Filling an incredible amount of niches, there are snakes that glide, snakes that tumble, snakes that side-wiggle, snakes in the rivers, snakes in the sea – eating all sorts of stuff. But, we have history. I’ve discussed the ‘Snake Detection Hypothesis’ a couple of times, it’s the idea that primate visual acuity primarily developed as a response to snake threats and that many primates, including humans, have specific visual acuity for seeing snakes. They might not be a danger now, but they were once.

The same is true with spiders. Ecologically valuable, exceptional diversity of form and function, but we just find them innately creepy and any arachnophobe will tell you we have a special sense – a spidey-sense if you will – for when they are around. We don’t need to ‘see’ them, somehow we just know. It’ll be pitch black, there will be no sight, no noise, no creeping touch on your skin but you’ll stick on your phone torch and there, on the wall, is a house-spider as big as a fist and you just knew!

With a legspan of around 7cm the giant house spider (Eratigena atrica) is one of the largest spider species native to the UK (though by no means the largest) but what it may be, in bursts, is the fastest! It is also the one people are most likely to encounter, especially during late summer and early autumn months when they get horny. I have thankfully only encounterd giants a couple of times. I was quite overawed by one whose legs would not fit under a full-rimmed pint glass. As a biologist, I respect spiders. As a person, I shudder. Fistbumps to my fellow arachnophobes. (Credit:
LNordgren CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Jellyfish came up, definitely a creature I think many people find icky or repulsive, but also actually dangerous even if most of them only give people a mild sting, it’s an inconvenience. It’s a genuine reason to think “Fuck you, jelly!” Plus some of them can give you a string so bad you beg to die, some of them can actually kill a person – So yeah, they’re definitely ‘misunderstood’ but the hesitance is for a real reason.

Yay! One of my own blurry photos! This was a compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella), presumed dead, washing up onto the beach at Dover. A swimmer was much disturbed to see it and immediately got out of the water to find a spot elsewhere. He was right to do so. Compass jellyfish can sting, and due to the nature of their sting mechanisms, can still do so when dead. Thus, people are generally taught, rightly so, to look but not touch as far as jellies are concerned! (Credit: ME!)

Anyone who wants to give any biting insect, any bug, leeway, can be thrown in a room with a trillion hungry mosquitos and get desiccated. Mozzies and their buddies the Plasmodium genus of parasites are possibly the second biggest killer of humans in history behind humans, and the rest of them are a nuisance. If you’re not reactive to bites, well done you won the genetic lottery but I’m not one of those people and the late spring/summer/early autumn game of “What the fuck is eating me!?” isn’t fun!

What I will say, a lot of people will say “Why do mosquitos exist anyway?” Erm, because they do! I know it seems circular, it’s because it is, welcome to life. It does not have to justify itself, if it is here it has survived the same near-4 billion year long ordeal you and your ancestors did and they are just as valid as lifeforms as you are. Making any of these biting insects extinct because they are a nuisance to us would likely have knock on effects to the myriad species they interact with in other ways. Just because you do not perceive its purposes in the great chaotic maelstrom of life, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. Chill.

A biting midge – One of the UK’s most common biting insects and the bane of Scotland in late-summer, early-autumn. Look, I respect their right to exist anywhere away from me. If they exist around me, they die. Fuck ’em (Credit: US Department of Agriculture, Public Domain)

So what will most of these species be? Well likely things we consider pests, intruders, unwelcome visitors. I already have a few of them in my head but I am also looking for a more international perspective. The notion of a bothersome, boring or taken-for-granted species is not universal, they depend very much on habitat and distribution. What we find annoying in the UK is not necessarily true of mainland Europe, North America or Australia. I want to delve into their wildlife and find out what they go “Oh bloody <such and such a species>!” about.

Whatever I come up with, unlike before it will be an interesting, diverse list covering a range of different creatures. This excites me! Whilst delving deep into a specific type of animal gets you a solid understanding of them, this is like reef diving. We stay shallow and we get to enjoy the vast range of species, shapes, sizes and colours. We don’t ever watch one thing too closely, but we get a little look at a lot of things.

So I’m excited, I hope you are too! As we cover the Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals!

The Spotted Hyena, here looking quite cute. These are youngsters. Far from their image a grim kill-thieves and carrion scavengers, the spotted hyena is actually socially intelligent, problem solving, an effective hunter and a very successful predator. (Credit: Bernard DUPONT CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Honourable Mention: The Spotted Hyena – Much maligned, associated with death, disease, thievery and scavenging, actually an amazing, effective predator with interesting genitals. It would definitely have made the list but given that I have recently written an article about them I’m leaving them off! Read about the spotted hyena here.

Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Bats
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pigeons
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Wolves
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Aye-Ayes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pika and Moles
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Vultures
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The European herring gull
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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