Cleanliness may or may not be next to Godliness: that’s a debate for the theologians. But, either way, in the African animal kingdom personal grooming can be a matter of life and death. Feathers, fur or scales must all be kept in tip-top condition in order to ward off potentially lethal parasites and disease. And, with conditioner and pedicures in short supply, evolution has produced some ingenious natural alternatives. By Mike Unwin.
Making a splash
Taking a bath is easy for aquatic birds that habitually swim or wade through water. But some smaller birds dare not venture in, for fear of becoming waterlogged. Swallows and bee-eaters, for instance, may be perfectly adapted for capturing insects in flight but their tiny perching feet are of little use for moving around in the shallows. Their solution? A bath on the wing. Flying at high speed, these birds dip briefly below the water’s surface, in the process vibrating their feathers and raising their tail to spray water over their back. They then find a perch, where they ruffle their feathers to shake out any excess water, before getting down to the serious business of preening.
Water is not a prerequisite for a bath. Many animals find that an immersion in dust works just as well for flushing away the filth. Practitioners range from elephants, which hoover up dust with their trunk and sprinkle it over their expansive hides, to ground birds, such as guineafowl, which rake up the ground, fluff out their feathers and squat down to work the dust through their plumage. Birds use all kinds of shaking, rubbing and scratching to ensure an even coating. They then shake out the dust, shedding ectoparasites and, in the process, reducing feather lipids, which helps maintain the insulating capacity of their plumage.
Plunging into a glutinous wallow seems a counter-intuitive approach to personal hygiene. But a liberal coating of mud works wonders for animals with sparse hair and few sweat glands, such as rhinos and warthogs, offering them natural sunscreen, protection from insects and cooling relief from the midday heat. The wallow is usually followed by a good scratch against a rubbing post, shedding ticks and other skin parasites that become encased in the drying mud. Favourite rocks or stumps eventually become buffed to a gleaming finish.
In matters of personal hygiene a friend sometimes comes in handy – literally. Monkeys, with their dextrous fingers, are experts in the art of social- or allo-grooming, and spend much of their time diligently removing dirt and parasites. This activity also provides the social cement of the troop, forging bonds, reinforcing social structures and even resolving conflicts. Grooming stimulates the release of beta-endorphin, which is why it appears so relaxing.
How to exfoliate when you’re a large fish without skincare products (or, let’s face it, hands)? Easy: visit a cleaning station, the tropical ocean equivalent of a high-street beautician. At strategic points on a coral reef, small fish called cleaner wrasses await their larger clients, known as ‘host’ fish. The latter, which may include whoppers such as manta rays, signal with ritualised movements when they’re ready. The cleaner fish then move in to nibble away dead skin and ectoparasites from their scales, providing an excellent cleaning service while simultaneously grabbing a free meal. This mutualistic arrangement works so well that cleaner wrasse can safely clean large predatory fish that would usually gobble up any such small fry.