SPECIAL EFFECTS – Deceit and Deception in the Natural World
Docent, Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association
Los Angeles, CA
Living in Southern California means living in a community that is not only culturally diverse, but spread across a widely varied physical landscape. This landscape provides an enormous range of activities and occupations – from deep sea fishing to mountain climbing, from farmer to investment banker (even zoo docent). But when most people think of Southern California they think of the climate, then movies – the film industry.
The support it takes to make a movie is a whole biome unto itself – actors, costume designers, make-up artists, set designers, sound and lighting designers as well as location directors – just to name a few. In any other part of the country the movie theater audiences begin to leave as soon as the credits run at the end of a movie. Not here, here many remain seated, intently watching the credits role on and on, looking for the name of a relative or neighbor, or maybe their own name, in the acknowledgements.
The “ industry’ gives awards annually for many categories and these ceremonies are broadcast widely.
One of the less known annual award presentations is that of the Genesis Awards – which pays tribute to the major news and entertainment media for producing outstanding works that raise public awareness of animal issues.
But all of these awards are created by and given to people. An AZAD conference in this particular location provides the ideal time for us to finally recognize and acknowledge the originators of many of these special effects. Unassisted by us, our natural world is full of plants and animals with sufficient talent to perform some rather convincing acting, they have created costumes ranging from subtle to outlandish, and they have constructed some amazing homes, sometimes in unique locations. They have been challenged by their environment and have responded in many highly creative ways.
ACTING – In the movies
This year “The Artist” won many awards. “Uggie,” a dog, played an important role. Uggie was recognized for his ultimate cleverness and cuteness in performing actions on cue, but the natural world acts and reacts in its own wonderful way.
ACTING – What is an actor?
One who behaves in a way that is not genuine, or one who pretends to be someone or something they aren’t. Hog-nosed snakes and North American opossums convincingly feign death. Many bird species perform the rather selfless act of being injured and helpless in order to distract a predator from its young. Some lizards shed their tails, and the tails continue to “act” active for the same reason. There are many displays of this sort. Think behavior.
COSTUME DESIGN – What one wears matters
The design of a costume or clothing is important in conveying information about the character who wears it, whether it be an actor or a person in “real-life.”
Costume design is important in nature – does the plant or animal want to be seen? Or does it want to conceal itself?
We all know that many prisoner uniforms are bright orange. An individual dressed in that color would be difficult to single out within the confines of a prison but would attract attention in public amongst the drab everyday clothing most people wear. Think about the safety an individual zebra finds within the numbers of the herd versus standing alone.
Skunks and coral snakes are conveniently attired in warning coloration, while many male birds display seasonal courtship coloring in order to attract potential mates.
The lion conceals itself from its prey with a coat that makes it fade into the African landscape, but when meeting another of its kind the male has a mane to display his status. Think diversity in the functions of design.
COSTUMES – Visual mimics
Often, in the natural world, “costumes” are not “original” but are meant to mimic others. The Monarch butterfly has its’ double in the Viceroy butterfly. There are orchids that mimic female insects to entice male wasps as pollinators, succulents that look like rocks and insects that look like walking sticks.
The feathers of a tawny frogmouth are only one rather successful example of a bird imitating the bark of its favorite tree. And, let us not forget the ever-popular peppered moth.
Cuckoos lay eggs with colors that disguise their genealogy. Think cryptic coloration, courtship attire and warning coloration.
SET DESIGN – Location, location, location.
Whether it be the choice of a spot to start a business or to buy a house, location is an important factor. The positioning of a home in a place that is safe and secure is of consequence whether it be an underground burrow or a nest in a tree.
Hummingbirds are amazing simply in the fact that they exist, but then they create their tiny hanging works of wonder for eggs the size of Tic-Tacs. From these tiny nests to bald eagles with nests larger than the size of a VW Beetle, bird nests come in a wide variety of designs.
Mammals such as prairie dogs burrow complex towns of their own, while beavers may create whole new ecosystems when they construct their homes.
The bower bird has gone through a great deal of effort to provide an attractive, well decorated setting for courtship and most certainly deserves credit for varied and interesting, set design.
Honduran tent bats use leaves as homes and spiders design elaborate webs, which also catch prey for them. Think animal architects.
LIGHTING DESIGN – In the eye of the beholder
Lighting is always an important component whether in the theatre or in a natural setting. Occupants of the natural world are acutely aware of the subtleties of their surroundings and act or react accordingly.
Desert plants flower during the cool of the night displaying pale or white blossoms that will reflect light which will, in turn, attract their pollinating bats.
What one animal sees is not necessarily what another perceives. Some animals can see ranges of light that humans can’t, plants have developed landing patterns for potential pollinators that we must use special lenses to perceive.
Some animal vision is bicolor, while many are tricolor – these differences matter when it comes to perceiving one’s surroundings. We will explore some of the advantages as well as disadvantages to the lack of tricolor vision. Think visual perception and color vision.
SOUND ENGINEERS – Do you hear what I hear?
Many animals sound alarm calls, vocal and otherwise. Mockingbirds are famous for assuming many vocal roles, as are parrots. Among other things, my neighbor’s parrot learned the territorial calls of most of the local birds as well as the barks of some dogs. Rattlesnakes are named for their famous warning devices.
There are moths capable of jamming the radar of bats.
Mating frogs face competition from others in the pond who mimic them with sound. Think acoustic engineering.
Evolution has provided living things with an amazing array of sound, color, shape and behaviors that accompany their perception (or lack of perception). There are creations and capabilities in the natural world that defy categorization.
“If you think of the animals in the zoo as ambassadors representing the kingdom of the wild to human society, I believe you will recognize their inestimable value to the animals remaining in the wild. Like all ambassadors, they must represent their kind to a new and different kind of country. They must represent animal society in such a way that humans will respect, admire, understand, and treat them decently. Because our animal ambassadors cannot speak, we who are privileged to work in the zoos serve as their interpreters. This is the awesome responsibility we in the zoo profession must continually bear.” – Dr. Theodore H. Reed, Director, National Zoological Park / Smithsonian Institution
On the cover of “A Zoo for All Seasons”:
Our zoos are their embassies – we all have important work to do as their interpreters. We must continue to keep our sense of wonder, and learn, to educate, to conserve while we can.