Animal Assessments - Wild Senses
27 Jul 2013 06.22 am by K. Daniel
Food assessment is not a field that is exclusive towards the human race. For millions of years animals have displayed the ability to distinguish the foods that they like, and many can be seen doing so until this day.
In some ways perhaps the methods they use to pick out their favourite goods are superior to what we can achieve using our own senses. Indeed, many animals possess highly sensitized organs which can detect the smallest signals of quality in the foods that they eat.
In this article we will investigate how wildlife assesses foods, and perhaps the things that we may learn from observing Mother Nature at work.
Note that specialization may be due to evolutionary merit, in other words, these creatures have adapted in such a way that ensures their survival, and this is achieved through eating simply good foods. But other than that, there are claims of animal preferences. This could be especially seen in captive animals and their preference (or refusal) for certain food stuffs.
Foodies in Captivity
One example can be seen in captive monkeys. Ron Hines, DVM, PhD mentions that primates are akin to children when it comes to taste preferences, they would always go for the sweetest, starchiest, fattiest foods given the choice. The methods they do this probably are based on the sights and smells of these foods, as sugary foods may tend to have a mildly sweet aroma (e.g. stone fruits), and bright colours (usually reds, yellows, orange).
One other hypothesis proposed by Robert Dudley suggest on the theory of the drunken monkey. It mentions that the strong addiction to the smell and taste of alcohol in primates may have granted their (and our) ancestors the advantage of locating fruits at the peak of ripeness. As you may have experienced it yourself, some fruits which are allowed to go over ripe may develop a slightly alcoholic taste, which is a result of the breakdown of sugars in the fruit reacting with yeasts and other microorganisms on the fruit skins and surrounding environment.
Up to this day there have been several documented cases on monkeys which inadvertently got or appeared to be drunk, as presented by the 2004 December issue of Natural History Magazine authored by Dustin Stephens and Robert Dudley.
Cold Blooded Connoisseurs
Captive iguanas are also said to have a certain degree of pickiness according to book author Melissa Kaplan. She notes on how some of her charges seem to sway between obsessive eating behaviour and apparent hatred for fruits such as rockmelons within a day's time. On food assessment, it was observed that these reptiles tended to go for brighter coloured foodstuffs such as fruits and flower blossoms over the typical green vegetable. Captive blue tongue lizards were also known to have a preference for ripe bananas over most other fruits, possibly due to the strong aroma.
Similar to monkeys, there was also a notable preference for high calorie foods, such as pet biscuits, eggs, chicken, and dog food, although their bodies are meant to be largely herbivorous. This supports the presumption that calories are a precious commodity for surviving in the wild, and so these eating habits may have been another adaptation mechanism.
Genes for Gourmands
Another supporting theory for the evolution of taste preferences can also be seen in carnivores. Because of their diet which is largely made up of meats and other proteins, it is unlikely for them to consume anything else such as fruit and vegetables. As such, because there is no need to assess these foods, certain taste buds such as those that register for sweetness are rendered obsolete.
Perhaps a combination of the two factors, dietary habit and genetic predisposition ultimately determines preferences and what is actually consumed. Much like humans, animals display a remarkable range of, well, human-like traits.
Several enterprising individuals have also decided to take full advantage of the natural capabilities of animals. One example can be seen in the production of Kopi Luwak, also known as civet coffee or weasel coffee.
The Asian Palm Civet, a small cat-like creature native to Southern and South East Asian regions is not what one might consider a working animal. But they have a special role in the eyes of coffee aficionados by helping the production of one of the most expensive coffee in the world.
Kopi Luwak is a novelty indeed. Originating from the 18th century when the Dutch colonized much of Java and Sumatra, it is extracted from the droppings of Asian Palm Civets who roam around coffee plantations and consume the berries. But how does excrement fetch a price of up to $3,000/kg?
It comes down to two things. First, selection of coffee berries. Asian Palm Civets are said to be notoriously picky when it comes to selecting the berries, only choosing those that are fully ripe and contain good quality seeds. Second, the digestive process of the Asian Palm Civet acts like a biological fermentation tank, where the coffee berries is digested leaving only the beans. The resulting beans that goes through the other end is said to have a stronger flavour and aroma, as well as lower acidity and bitterness.
Of course the production process does not end there. The collected beans are then washed, cleaned, and roasted to produce the iconic product.
And so, what can we learn from all of this? There's not much that we can do on the physical side of things anyway, as our senses are arguably different from other organisms. But what can be done from a practical point of view is the basic principles of assessing foods, using all the senses granted which are sights, smell, taste, touch, and in some cases, hearing. Animals do this on a daily basis in order to survive, to avoid toxins and make the most out of their meals. By comparison, we have the luxury of choice, which may have resulted in the dulling of our senses.
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