The weirdest animal eating habits

Animals at all levels of the food chain have mastered some incredible techniques for collecting calories

Different habitats have their own unique challenges, and different species tackle them in different ways. From the bottom of the food chain to the top, we meet some of the most inventive eaters in the animal kingdom.

The food washer

Japanese macaques are known for washing and salting their food

Japanese macaques are clever, social animals that pass their food habits from generation to generation within close-knit troupes,
and they have developed an unusual way of preparing their food before they eat it.
In the early 1950s, researchers spotted an 18-month-old macaque called Imo washing the sand off a sweet potato before she ate it. Soon after, other females in her troupe were doing the same. As time passed the animals developed a preference for washing their potatoes in salt water, and then they started re-dipping pieces as they ate, as if to season their meals with the salt.

The strange habit is passed down from mother to child when females first take their young to the water’s edge. Pieces of potato drop into the salty liquid and the little ones fish them out and eat them, getting a taste for the clean, seasoned snack. The habit has even been observed in captive monkeys too.


The lure

Female anglerfish ensnare their prey with a bioluminescent fishing rod

Beneath the waves, at depths of up to 1,000 metres (3,280.8 feet), light from the Sun is scarce and fearsome-looking anglerfish lie in wait. These denizens of the deep use bioluminescence to trick their prey and, like the fishermen they are named after, they dangle tempting bait to attract unsuspecting victims.

With an enormous head and a lumpy, scaleless body, anglerfish have a distinctive glowing lure, which is stuffed with bioluminescent bacteria that perform a chemical reaction that generates light. The trap is pulsed and wiggled to attract a fish and then the angler’s jaws snap shut.

There are hundreds of species, all with the same hunting tactic, but only the females are capable of this impressive fishing trick. The males don’t need to eat at all. They are much smaller and become permanently fused to a female’s body when they are young, sharing her blood supply and the nutrients that she captures with her lure.


Speedy snackers

Star-nosed moles eat fast

These rodents top the list of speedy mammalian munchers with their impressive ability to find, catch and swallow prey in fractions of a second. Their diet consists mainly of fast-moving worms and beetle larvae, so the moles need to respond like lightening when they come into contact with a potential meal.

With a few innovative adaptations they can sense and devour prey in less time than it
takes us to blink. Their brains have more space dedicated to processing touch than other moles, and each of the 22 points on their nose is equipped with highly sensitive sensory nerves.

They hunt both underground and underwater and, if something brushes past their sensitive tentacles, they can decide whether or not
to attack in as little as 230 milliseconds. It’s therefore no surprise that they possess the fastest reaction times of any animal.


Rock guzzlers

Ostriches eat stones to kick-start their digestion

Ostriches are the biggest and fastest-running birds on the planet, but they don’t sprint to chase down prey — they are omnivorous foragers that spend their time grazing, browsing and pulling up roots, seeds and insects to eat.

Like many other birds, they don’t have teeth, so they store mouthfuls of food in a stomach at the top of their throat called the proventriculus. When the ball of unchewed food is big enough, it travels down into the first part of their long digestive system, where it meets a ‘gastric mill’ made from swallowed grit and stones. These hard pebbles churn about, grinding the food into a digestible pulp.


Words by Laura Mears

There are even more odd ways of eating in World of Animals issue 52 – out now in shops and available to buy online!