Figure Credit: C. Y. Oseto. Entomology, Purdue University Entomology.
Food consumption is on Americans’ minds right now with recent Thanksgiving Day feasts under our belt (literally if not figuratively), and Christmas dinners, Hanukah celebrations, and New Year’s festivals in the near future. What holiday is complete without consuming ridiculous, even epic amounts of food? It is what we do. It is expected. We engorge to repletion until we are sure that we cannot possibly eat another bite. Then we do it again, if not at the very next meal then certainly at the next holiday.
It is a sad reality that humans are amateurs at making ingested food last more than a few hours. We eat, we digest but we are soon back at the refrigerator or the pantry, looking for a repeat.
I was recently asked an interesting question by Christine Peterson, a freelance writer for the Nature Conservancy who was researching an article about what we can learn from other animals that store foods for use later. Her subject may be timely considering that humans, though inept at making an ingested meal last, actually excel among all animals in food storage abilities. We do it better than any other animal and, in large part, that’s what makes us successful.
Of course, humans are not the only animals that hoard food for the purpose of using it in upcoming leaner times. Several birds stash foods in various caches for later use. Some predatory mammals bury excess foods for short-term storage, and other mammals, such as rodents, actually sequester seeds and nuts in a specialized compartment of their nest, technically called a larder, for use several months later.
Even so, these stashes, caches and larders pale in comparison to what humans can do. American agricultural facilities, including granaries and refrigerated buildings, store vast quantities of raw food stuffs. Warehouses and grocery stores are stacked with processed and packaged foods. Homes are equipped with pantries, closets, cupboards and shelves to stockpile canned and dried foods. Refrigerators and freezers preserve perishable foods. Humans are indeed efficient at storing foods – at least externally. But how do they compare with animals that store foods inside their bodies?
Animals, including humans, produce and store fat reserves during times when food is plentiful, then metabolize them later when needed. Hibernating bears are best known for this survival technique. In conjunction with reducing activity, lowering body temperature, restricting breathing and heartbeat to minimize metabolism (a process often called hibernation) using stored fat overrides the need for finding food during a season when food is scarce.
Christine asked, “Do insects also store food?” The question is interesting and almost certainly on the minds of many of my most inquiring readers – at least those with nothing better to contemplate during this holiday season.