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It’s a classic cartoon trope, a bird hatches, and finds an unlikely mother to follow, leading to some sort of cartoon style comeuppance. Just take a look at this classic Tom & Jerry Cartoon! But what is the science behind this phenomenon?

Here’s another example! This young chicken imprints on Garfield as it emerges from its egg.

Well it turns out that this type of imprinting does actually occur in some birds! The process of imprinting happens fairly early on in Precocial birds, which are hatched feathered, and practically mobile (Think Turkey, Geese, and Ducks). Imprinting is actually a very important step in these birds development, allowing them to have immediate behaviors and vocalizations to follow as they begin their journey into life. Imprinting behavior also urges the young birds to follow their parent, which protect their young.

This image shows a Quail Chick, which is a precocial hatch-ling. Notice that it’s fully feathered and ready to move!
(By I, Tony Wills, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3268979)

We can thank much of what we know about this unique behavior to a scientist named Konrad Lorenz. Konrad was an Australian zoologist, who was among the first individuals to describe the behavior. He studied this behavior in a simple way. He gathered a clutch of goose eggs, and incubated them under two different conditions. The first group of eggs, he left to the mother bird, to incubate herself (We’ll call these Mama’s Goslings). The second group Konrad incubated himself (Konrad’s Goslings). Once the eggs hatched, Konrad was careful to be sure that he was the first thing that his group saw, and Mama Goose was the first for her group. What he observed was that his goslings would follow him, while Mama’s Goslings followed her!

Konrad with his Goslings!
José Fernando Maya-Vetencourt)

To be sure that the goslings had actually imprinted on him Konrad gathered all the newly hatched Goslings from both groups in a box, and ensured that they all mixed together. When he freed them, Konrad’s Goslings separated from Mama’s Goslings, and began following him all over again!

Konrad became very close with his Goslings, teaching them how to swim, preen, and eventually fly!
(Nina Leen)

Konrad Lorenz later went on to meet another scientist Nokolaas Tinbergen, a Dutch biologist and ornithologist (the study of birds!) Together, the two went on to found a new branch of biology, ethology; or the study of Animal Behavior. Together, with another friend of theirs Karl von Frisch, they won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Most people to read this post will say that of course, insects are wildlife. The definition of wildlife, in the oxford dictionary calls wildlife “wild animals collectively; the native fauna (and sometimes flora) of a region”. This definition certainly includes insects, as well as some plants. In public opinion, this ring true, a brief glimpse at various online forums confirms that most people consider insects to be wildlife. However, in science the definition of wildlife differs considerably from the oxford definition.

When you ask most Wildlife Biologists what wildlife is, you’re likely to hear a list of characteristics that a large group of animals has in common. The Endangered species act (1973) defines wildlife as any native, free-ranging, undomesticated, terrestrial vertebrate. Notably, this definition disregards plenty of animal groups, including anything aquatic like fish and whales, and anything domesticated, like cows and pigs. Although these groups are excluded from the official definition of wildlife, various legal protections regulate these groups, such as the Animal Welfare Act, and the the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Another group that is notably excluded from this definition is insects, which is excluded due to their lack of a backbone, making them non-vertebrates. Unlike other “non-wildlife” groups, insects lack legal protections, excluding environmental protections such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. In our current administration, these protections have become increasingly inefficient for protecting insects. For example, earlier this year, the Trump administration stripped protections from more than half of United States wetlands, allowing toxic pesticides to be dumped into waterways.

What current administration fails to realize is the deep importance of insects to our natural ecosystems, and to our own lives. For example, pollination of our food crops through pollinating insects, such as bees, butterflies, and moths, contribute to the pollination of over 100 food crops, including apples, almonds, citrus fruits, and tomatoes. Beyond pollination, insects act as important members of the food chain, often dietary staples in young birds, important for their high protein content. Predatory insects such as wasps and lady bugs are important for controlling pest insects. Termites and cockroaches are important decomposers, without which certain nutrients would be limited in soil, and unavailable for growing plants. Insects act as important members of their communities regularly.

In my opinion, insects are wildlife. As important members of a community, it is imperative that they be protected. Insects are often considered “creepy crawlies”, which adds to their negative perception and frequent loss. In recent events, the arrival of the ‘murder hornet’, more directly known as the Asian giant hornet, has led to the loss of native species. Locals believing they’ve identified the Asian giant hornet kill them, only to later find out they’ve killed a native species. Adequately protecting insects stands to better our local communities, as well as improve their populations.