Nature's Bath Time
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Bathing may not rank high on your list of enjoyable activities, but you have been taught by your parents that one way to stay healthy is to keep your body clean. Nature must have taught this same important lesson to the rest of the animal kingdom because almost all creatures have developed some method of cleaning and grooming themselves.
Man-made aids such as bathtubs, soap, plastic combs, and brushes are unavailable, so animals must manage with whatever equipment nature provides. Tongues are important in the cleaning activities of many animals. You are probably familiar with the tongue baths taken by the family cat, but did you know that wild members of the cat family also lick themselves clean? The bobcat licks every reachable part of its body; then it licks its paw and uses the wet foot to wash its face and behind its ears. Young bobcats are kept clean by their mothers just as kittens are bathed by the family cat.
Bats spend at least an hour each day washing themselves in catlike fashion. Those parts of the bat’s body which cannot be reached with its tongue, such as the inside of its ear, are cleaned with its saliva-moistened wing thumbs. Special attention is given to cleaning the wings to keep them soft, and the bat massages each joint of its wing “hands” with its thin, red tongue every day.
Ants are among the cleanest of all insects. They lick themselves every few minutes with an oily saliva that cleans and oils their bodies. They also lick each other as a part of their grooming activities. Since their antennae are quite sensitive, they also must be kept very clean. To clean them, the ant lifts its front leg over one antenna and pulls the antenna through a special brush of hairs which grows at its “wrist.” The brush is then pulled through the ant’s mouth to remove any dirt. This action may be repeated several times on each antenna until both are cleaned to the ant’s satisfaction. Much of the nurse ant’s time is spent washing or grooming eggs, larvae, and young. As soon as the queen lays an egg, it is snatched up by a nurse and taken to the nursery area for a bath. The egg is licked until its surface is sticky with saliva and then stacked with the other eggs. When the larva hatches, an oily substance oozes from its skin. This substance tastes good to nurse ants, so they lick the larva, keeping it moist. When young ants emerge from the pupal stage, they are not too skillful at cleaning themselves, so nurse ants help them straighten and clean their antennae and wash their bodies.
Members of the dog family,
such as coyotes and wolves,
use their tongues to clean
themselves and their young,
but they also use other
methods of grooming. Scratching
and biting, for instance,
help rid their bodies of
fleas and ticks, tangled
hair, and burrs. Shaking
removes dirt, loose hair,
dead fleas and ticks, and
anything else that may be
loosely caught in the hair.
Shaking also removes excess
water when the animals are
wet. Rubbing and rolling
in grass and other vegetation
help clean the animal’s
coat, dry it, and, on occasion,
improve its odor. Wild members
of the dog family seldom
take water baths, and this
is probably just as well
since too much water can
dry their skins.
Beavers, which spend so much of their time in the water, groom their fur coats whenever they waddle ashore. The beaver sits upright and uses its forepaws to shake water out of its ears. It may then scratch the hair on its head, rub its eyes, comb its whiskers, and scratch its belly. A double-claw toenail on the second toe of each hind foot is used to comb and groom the fur. After about five minutes of grooming, the beaver is ready to oil and waterproof its fur. To do this, the animal backs up and sits down on its tail. This exposes the special oil glands located under its tail. The beaver then reaches down, gets the yellow liquid oil called castoreum on its forepaws, and rubs it into its fur. This oiling process may take another five minutes.
A porcupine spends very little time combing its hair, and it is impossible for the creature to use its teeth or claws to groom the fur and hair on its back and tail. It occasionally licks its paws and scratches, but to shed loose quills the porcupine usually shakes itself like a dog. To groom its coat this prickly animal simply erects the hair on its body and then relaxes it. This smoothes and straightens its appearance.
Those of you who hate to wash your ears can be glad you are not a jackrabbit. How would you like to wash its long ears every day? The jackrabbit manages by pushing each one forward with a foot so its tongue can lick most of the area clean. Its big feet also must be washed, and the jackrabbit usually shakes each one to loosen the dirt before it puts its tongue to work. Saliva-moistened feet also are used to wash its face and behind its ears.
In addition to tongue baths, some animals, such as rabbits and squirrels, take dust baths. The animal looks for a spot where the soil is either sandy or powdery dry. Then it lies down, rolls about, kicks out its legs, pulls itself in circles, and finishes the bath with a leap and a shake. This dust bath helps to remove parasites from the animal.
Many birds, such as chickens, pheasants, and quail, also take dust baths. In fact, some never bathe in water at all. The bird scratches the dirt until it is loose or finds a sandy or dusty area. The bird then lies down and throws the powdery dirt all over its body and wings. Its feathers are loosely held open so the dirt can penetrate all the way to the skin to clog the breathing holes of any attached parasites. When the bird gets up and shakes after its dust bath, many of the parasites drop off.
After the dust bath, the bird must preen its feathers. Hidden under the soft feathers at the base of its tail is an oil gland. Size of the gland and amount of oil varies with the bird species, but the gland reaches its maximum size in aquatic birds, which need a lot of oil for waterproofing their feathers. The bird’s probing bill releases the oily substance, and the bird covers its beak with it. Carefully, the oil is spread over every feather. Loose feathers are pulled out and rumpled ones smoothed. This oil helps insulate the bird, weatherproofs its feathers, and keeps its bill from becoming dry and scaly.
House sparrows enjoy both water and dust baths. You have probably seen them rooting around in the dry dirt of your flowerbeds, and, if you have a birdbath, you may also have seen them taking water baths. The bird hops in the water and dips its head and wings quickly in and out, shaking its head as it splashes. Then it dips and shakes its tail in the water. It may seesaw back and forth, dipping first the head and wings and then the tail until all of its feathers are completely wet. When the bath is over, the bird flies to a branch, shakes to remove most of the water, and then preens and oils its feathers.
Vultures and owls enjoy taking sunbaths. The vulture perches on a high branch and spreads its wings so the sunshine can reach every feather. The sunshine makes it feel good and also helps kill many of the germs picked up from the dead animals the vulture eats. The owl may lie in a sandy area and spread first one wing and then the other as it sunbathes, or it may stand on a stump, let its wings droop down as far as they will reach, and turn its face to the sun.
Fish are constantly in the water, and they couldn’t possibly need a bath, but they still get parasites on their bodies. To try to remove them the fish may roll to the side and fling itself against a plant or rock. This action rubs the side of the fish, usually the gill section, against the plant or rock and may remove some of the irritating parasites from its body.
These are but a few examples of how animals clean and groom themselves in the wild. If you pay attention the next time you have a chance to observe wildlife, you may learn some new ways.
1983 Nature's Bath Time. Young Naturalist. The Louise Lindsey Merrick Texas Environment Series, No. 6, pp. 47-50. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.