Five Odd Red Animals for Valentine's Day

02/14/2012

Happy Valentine's Day!  We all know that red is the signature color of this love-themed holiday.  But red is an odd color in the animal world.  One reason is that many animals, including most mammals, lack the ability to even see the color red.  Red isn't particularly good for camouflage in most of the planet's environments either, which are dominated by green plants, blue water and brown or gray rocks.

Still, Mother Nature has painted some of her creatures this brilliant hue nonetheless.  Often it's a warning color, indicating an animal is poisonous if eaten, or that it can deliver a painful sting or has deadly venom.  Other times red is used as a courtship display, typically by males, to attract and impress potential mates.

Here, in celebration of Valentine's Day, are five animals that are odd because of their brilliant red coloration.

Northern Cardinal
The classic backyard bird in the eastern half of the country, the male northern cardinal is brilliant red.  His color is attractive to the much duller olive colored female cardinal. In fact, male cardinals are one of the only North American birds that are predominantly red (the summer and scarlet tanagers and vermilion flycatcher males also sport red feathers, but are not as uniformly or brilliantly red as the male cardinal).

Cardinal tink tracy FLICKR

 

Clownfish
Clown anemonefish, or just clownfish for short, really do look like painted clowns with their cartoonish red-orange color and white stripes.  But their bright coloration is not something potential predators should laugh at.  Clownfish can get away with being so garish because they have a symbiotic relationship with anemones, soft-bodied reef invertebrates with painful stinging tentacles

Clownfish secrete a mucus over their skin that makes them immune to anemone stings. When danger threatens, they dart in amongst the safety of the anemone tentacles where no predator will bother them.  In exchange, clownfish help keep the anemones parasite-free.

Clownfish Lee Nachtigal FLICKR

 

Velvet Ant
These bright red, furry insects are actually wasps. The females are large and lack wings so they resemble ants as the scurry along the ground, hence the common name.  They can deliver an extremely painful sting so their bright coloration is a warning to stay clear and don't mess with them. 

Their venom causes such excrutiating pain that they've been nicknamed "cowkillers" because the power of their sting is said to be strong enough to kill a cow.  While that might be an exaggeration, you do not want to mess with a velvet ant!

 

Red Eft
The red eft is really a sub-adult red-spotted newt. Like most amphibians, the red-spotted newt starts out life as an aquatic larvae that breathes through gills but eventually develops lungs and legs and leaves the water.  Unlike most other amphibians, this newt goes through a transitional phase before completing its full metamorphosis into adulthood. 

During this time, it turns a brilliant red-orange color and heads onto land where it lives in moist woodlands for a few years.  When it finally reaches maturity it changes to an olive green color with tiny red spots and a yellow belly, grows a flatter, more fin-like tail, and returns to the water for the rest of its life. 

The red eft's bright red coloration is a warning to potential predators that it secretes toxins from its skin and doesn't make good eating! 

Red Eft

Red Panda
These mammals are native to the forests of the Himalayas and China.  Like their cousin the giant panda, red pandas feed primarily on bamboo and spend most of their time slowly eating this tough food and then napping while they digest it. 

Red pandas aren't venomous, their flesh isn't poisonous, and they aren't equipped with particularly dangerous teeth or claws.  So I can only conclude that their rusty-red coloration (in concert with their cute faces, striped tails and plump bodies) is simply designed to make them look adorable and elicit "ooooohs" and "ahhhhhhs" from human beings.  It's working.

Red Panda

Check out this video playlist of animals kissing people and odd people kissing animals!

Photos: Cardinal by tink tracy.  Clownfish by Lee Nachtigal. Red eft by Putneypics.  Red Panda by Anirban Biswas. All via Flickr Creative Commons.


David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. His goal is to inspire others to appreciate the wonders of nature. Meet David >
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