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7 Little-Known Roles Animals Play In Protecting Our Health & The Planet

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Anyone who has ever owned a pet, or stood in awe of a wild animal, can understand the power they have to influence our minds, emotions and hearts. In fact, there’s no shortage of research and scientific evidence showing that interacting with animals decreases levels of cortisol, lowers blood pressure, reduces loneliness, increases feelings of social support, and serves as a serious mood booster.

But have you ever stopped to appreciate all the ways animals contribute to our lives and to the health of the environment? We have….but not often enough! This is an appreciation post highlighting some of the lesser-known and often overlooked roles that animals play in helping humans live our best lives. Let’s take a look!

1. Animal Medicine: From snake and spider venom for pain management to frog skin secretions and giant panda blood as antibiotics, researchers are continually finding new ways that the complex chemical processes that serve and protect the animal kingdom can lend themselves to human health. Growing organs for human transplant, sniffing for cancer cells, gene transfer from mice to restore the sight of blind children — the healing power of animals is endless! Read all about it in two articles from ABC News and Listverse.

2. Wildfire Control: Animals eating plants suppress fire, and humans are already using the enormous appetites of goats, deer, and cows to reduce the fuel available for potential wildfires. “But other animals such as birds, termites, and elephants can also double as ecosystem engineers, naturally reducing or enhancing the chances, spread, or severity of wildfires as they go about their day-to-day grass-chewing, track-making, or nest-building,” researchers in Australia write in a review published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

3. Literal Navy Seals: The U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program puts the supreme swimming, sight and communication skills of dolphins and sea lions to use on a variety of underwater missions—anything from harbor patrol and protection, to rescue and recovery, to naval mine detection. ‘Both dolphins and sea lions have excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing that allow them to detect and track undersea targets, even in dark or murky waters. They can also dive hundreds of feet below the surface, without risk of decompression sickness or "the bends" like human divers,’ The National Interest reports.

4. Landmine Detection: Most of us have heard of dogs being used to detect explosives in areas of war, but have you heard of rats detecting landmines? NPR writes about Magawa, a Tanzanian-born African giant poured rat that was awarded one of Britain’s highest honors for detecting dozens of landmines in Cambodia.

5. Avid Recyclers: Humans can take notes from the animal kingdom on how to live in balance with their natural surroundings. They take only what is needed and waste as little as possible. An article from Treehugger highlights eight animals that take “reduce, reuse, recycle” to the next level, including octopi, butterflies, and even lobsters!

6. Helping the Disabled: Service dogs lead the blind, and a whole host of animals lend their calming energy of emotional support these days. (Have you seen the emotional support horse on an airplane?) But a lesser-recognized animal has been lending their hands to assist quadriplegics through an organization called “Helping Hands” — the capuchin monkey. Time Magazine reports about how a Tufts University graduate project in 1979 launched this non-profit monkey college, which for decades has bred, trained, and paired monkeys with people in need.

7. Expanding Plant Populations: Squirrels burying nuts and birds dropping seeds from trees are some of nature's best gardeners, contributing to reseeding and reforestation throughout the world. But Science Magazine reports on the world record holder for transporting seeds, helping plant populations expand and preventing the overpopulation of plant species in their native lands: the African elephant. “The pachyderms can transport seeds up to 65 kilometers, according to a study of elephant dung in South Africa. That’s 30 times farther than savanna birds take seeds, and it indicates that elephants play a significant role in maintaining the genetic diversity of trees on the savanna,” the article states.

And these are just SOME of the incredible jobs that animals have in keeping our bodies and environments in balance. Do you know of any other ways they’re working behind the scenes to protect our planet and our lives? Leave us a comment below!

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