Sometimes, animals gather into dense clusters, often at specific times or places. Sometimes, they do bizarre things while clustered. Sometimes, they’re far from their typical habitat. These animals often draw crowds of tourists, and with good reason.
One can find fireflies in many parts of the United States, but there are some very special ones in Tennessee. Every June, certain fireflies meet to perform their characteristic evening light show, only instead of each one lighting up whenever it feels like it, they all light up at the same time, every second or two. They’re synchronized.
The best-known group of synchronous fireflies is found at Elkmont, Tennessee, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So many tourists were coming to see them that officials now close the entrance road to Elkmont during firefly season; one gets there by taking a special shuttle from Sugarlands Visitor Center, near Gatlinburg. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has at least 19 firefly species, but only one, Photinus carolinus, does the synchronized light show. In fact, it’s the only species in America with that trick.
Siberia is known for being brutally cold in the winter. Swans are known for liking moderate weather. Whooper swans may spend their summers in northern latitudes, but they usually migrate to China, Korea, or Japan for the winter. That’s why the whooper swans of Svetloe Lake, Siberia, are so odd: They stay there for the winter! Not surprisingly, the locals call it Swan Lake. Approximately 2,000 ducks also spend the winter there.
The swans and ducks survive by hanging around near the lake, which is heated by warm springs—water that gets warmed up as it rises from the underground. Even when the air temperature drops to –40 degrees Celsius (–40 °F), the water of Svetloe Lake stays around +5 Celsius (+41 °F). When planning a winter vacation, most people don’t think of Siberia, but organized tours do exist. For example, the Altai Peaks and Rivers Tour includes a visit to Svetloe Lake.
Paga is a small town on the northern border of Ghana. It’s home to some remarkable crocodiles: They’re friendly. Tourists can sit on them or lift their tails and they don’t seem to mind. One pays an entrance fee, then pays a caretaker for a live chicken, which is used to lure the crocodiles out of the water onto dry land.
The crocodiles of Paga are also sacred. The people there consider killing one to be as sinful as killing a human. There are many legends to explain why killing them is forbidden. Perhaps the most colorful one is the story of Naveh Kampala, whom tradition regards as the founder of Paga. His father was once helped by a crocodile and in return pledged never to harm one. One day, Naveh was hunting and fell into an aardvark hole. He was trapped for two days before a crocodile noticed him and showed him an escape route. Like his father, Naveh also pledged to never harm a crocodile. He later founded Paga and made crocodiles the local totem.
There’s only one population of free-ranging monkeys in continental Europe—the Barbary macaques of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory on the Iberian Peninsula. The macaques are a tourist attraction, but they’re also a tourist distraction. They climb on car windshields and can be very annoying. John Cortes, the environment minister, said the macaques had “lost their fear of humans and regard them as a source of rich food, like chocolate and biscuits.”
Macaques have been around for about seven million years, but the last ice age pushed them out of Europe into North Africa and Asia. How did some get back to Gibraltar? One story is that they have a secret tunnel under the water. It’s more likely they were brought across by people, but it’s not clear when or by whom. The first historical record of them dates to 1782. They were well established by then.
During World War II, their numbers were dwindling, and Winston Churchill himself took an interest. He told the British Consulate in Morocco to introduce more macaques. Their numbers went back up, and recently they’ve started to get exported to keep the population under control.
6Narcisse Snake Dens
Every September, thousands of garter snakes slither into limestone crevices in the Interlake Region of Manitoba. In some places, one can see more snakes together than anywhere else in the world. The best-known crevices are the Narcisse Snake Dens. They’re near Narcisse, a hamlet north of Winnipeg.
The snakes stay in the dens to escape the winter cold. What they do is a bit like hibernation, but not quite the same. Instead of burning fat reserves, they slow their metabolism to the point where they use hardly any energy. It’s called brumation.
Every spring (in late April and early May), they all emerge from the depths. Each female snake has several male snakes rubbing against it, trying to get her excited. This clump of snakes is called a “mating ball.” The mating period lasts two to three weeks, and then the snakes head off to nearby marshes for the summer. Many snakes used to get run over as they crossed a nearby highway, so tunnels were created under the highway and fences were put up to divert most of the snakes to the tunnels.
Chicago And New York City
Parrots are associated with warm, tropical weather. Chicago can get very cold, snowy, and windy in the winter. That’s why it so surprising that hundreds of Quaker parrots now live in Chicago, outdoors, year-round. Quaker parrots, also called monk parakeets or monk parrots, are mostly green, with an orange beak, a gray face, and blue wing tips. They’re popular pets, partly because they’re pretty but also because they can learn many words. It’s thought that the ones in Chicago originated as pets in the 1960s.
They’re native to Argentina and neighboring countries, which is why they’re more accustomed to snow than most parrots (Southern Argentina can get quite cold in the winter). Quaker parrots build nests out of sticks and are the only parrots that do so. Other parrots find existing holes in trees. In fact, Quaker parrots sometimes build giant nest complexes housing several family groups, each with their own entrance. Some parrots have noticed that electrical transformers radiate warmth, so they build their nests around them. Unfortunately, that’s not safe, so electrical utility workers must remove the nests.
Another population of Quaker parrots lives in New York City. Researchers have found that local Quaker parrot populations can develop their own vocal dialects. It’s fun to imagine parrots speaking with their own Bronx accent.
Tourists who visit Isla Mujeres, Mexico, can snorkel with the largest concentration of whale sharks in the world. The season lasts roughly from May to September.
Whale sharks are the largest fish on Planet Earth. They can get up to 12 meters (39 ft) long. Unlike most sharks, they’re filter feeders: They only eat small plants, eggs, and animals (in large amounts). Also, unlike most sharks, they’re covered with white polka dots. They live throughout all the tropical oceans. They come to the waters off Isla Mujeres because it’s an area where little tunny (a kind of tuna fish) likes to lay its eggs. Those eggs float, and the whale sharks spend all day scooping them up. There’s a similar congregation of whale sharks near Isla Holbox.
Nobody paid much attention to the whale shark clusters until around 2003, when marine researcher Bob Hueter noted them in a research paper. Since then, a lively tourism industry has sprung up around the sharks, to the point where the Mexican government had to impose regulations to keep it sustainable.
3Bald Eagle Festival
Bald eagles, the national emblem of the United States, are magnificent birds. They tend to come in small numbers, so seeing one is usually a treat. Now imagine seeing thousands of them along a short stretch of river. That’s what happens when they congregate in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. It’s the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world.
Here’s what happens: Every November, large numbers of salmon swim from the Pacific Ocean into the rivers of British Columbia to spawn (i.e., lay eggs and die). Bald eagles like to eat salmon, so they’ve learned to come to spots with lots of them, such as the Fraser River Valley in November. People like bald eagles, so they come to look at them and take photos. An official Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival got started, complete with a photo contest, invited speakers, guided walking tours, boat tours, sponsors, and an Exhibitor’s Hall.
Pink flamingos are usually thought of as being tropical birds, but one can also find them in the Camargue, Southern France. In fact, it’s the largest colony of pink flamingos in the Western Mediterranean, with about 10,000 pairs. The Camargue is south of Arles, in Provence. It includes the Rhone River delta, plus some red salt lagoons. Those lagoons are home to brine shrimp, which flamingos eat. It’s what makes them pink. (Sea monkeys, once advertised in comic books, are also a kind of brine shrimp.)
Guided tours of the Camargue’s flamingos are available from April through September. There was a scare in 2007, when most of the flamingos went away. The cause was a partial strike at a local salt factory. When operating normally, that factory had the side effect of pumping salty water into a lagoon where the flamingos nested. The strike stopped the pumping: no salt, no brine shrimp, no flamingos. The strike did end, and the lagoon land was sold to the French government body in charge of coastal conservation. Since then, they’ve made sure the lagoon has enough salt, and the flamingos have returned.
The rabbits of Okunoshima, Japan, have totally overrun the place. As a result, it has also become known as “Usaga Jima,” or “Rabbit Island.” A typical photo of a tourist on Okunoshima shows them surrounded by 10–20 rabbits, with each rabbit angling for a raisin, or whatever it is that Japanese feral rabbits eat.
Okunoshima is near Hiroshima. It was home to a secret chemical weapons factory during World War II, but that factory was shut down after the war. Rabbits were used to test the poison gases, but they were all killed at the end of the war, at least according to one version of events. The island was turned into a park, and new rabbits were brought in to colonize it. Exactly who brought the new ones remains a matter of debate. Dogs and cats were forbidden, and rabbit hunting was made illegal. The result was predictable.
Okunoshima also has a golf course, campgrounds, hiking trails, beaches, and a Poison Gas Museum. The island is close to the mainland, so it has become a popular tourist destination. Japan also has an island that’s overrun by cats: Tashirojima. About 100 people live there, along with hundreds of cats. There’s even a small cat shrine in the middle of the island. You can read more about Okunoshima and Tashirojima on KnowledgeNuts.