Fire is dangerous, there’s no doubt about it.
Uncontrolled, wildfires can spread across entire landscapes in mere hours, leaving a wake of devastation in their path.
Millions of wild animals perish, entire ecosystems are destroyed and populations can become highly fragmented.
But, for some, wildfire brings life and opportunities.
There are animals, such as black kites, that are not afraid of fire. Species congregate in great numbers around fires, waiting to pick up any smaller species attempting to flee the flames. Some species, such as bears, are also unafraid of fire. They associate campfires with leftover food and actively seek them out.
The relationship between animals and fire is long standing, and has been recorded in various countries around the globe. Today, humans are having a significant impact in the frequency of wildfires across the globe, and this is impacting the behaviour of many species.
Read on to discover some animals that aren’t afraid of fire.
I know, I know, a firehawk isn’t an animal per se.
Rather, it is a collective term for a group of legendary raptors, or birds of prey, found in tropical Australian savannah.
This includes the black kite, whistling kite and brown falcon.
Aboriginal folklore spoke of birds so mystical, they had the power to hunt with fire and introduced fire to humans.
And, whilst they may not have introduced us humans to fire, new reports suggest that they certainly hunt with fire.
That’s right. They are so unafraid of fire, they actually hunt with it.
All three of these species have been recorded deliberately spreading wildfires by transporting burning sticks in their talons or beaks.
Oftentimes, this behaviour is done independently. However, cooperative hunting behaviours have been recorded.
But why do these birds hunt together using fire?
Black kites, whistling kites and brown falcons all prey on very similar species, including insects, small reptiles and mammals.
Locating a minuscule prey species from the air, locking onto it and swooping down for the kill is an energetically costly way of hunting – especially when the hunting success rate is approximately 20%.
So, to increase hunting success rates, all three species have been observed cooperatively hunting together, intentionally spreading wildfires via burning sticks in specific areas.
Prey species in a localized area begin fleeing in all directions to escape the flames, and become easy targets for the raptors to single out and swoop in for the kill.
When cooperatively hunting together, hunting success rates have been shown to double.
2. Wood-boring Beetles
Melanophila is a genus of wood-boring beetles. Also referred to as fire beetles, they have an acute sensitivity to heat radiation.
The aptly named black fire beetle, has a specialised sensory organ found on the thorax, capable of detecting forest fires from a distance of over 60 kilometres.
Melanophila, as well as other woodboring beetles from Cerambycidae and Buprestidae families, are reliant on burnt trees to facilitate part of their life cycle.
After copulation, adults lay their eggs in dead or dying trees. Once hatched, the developing larvae feast on the phloem of the burnt trunks.
Whilst many animals attempt to flee burning forests, the black fire beetles readily gravitate towards the flames. They are pyrophilous, or fire-loving, and are well protected from the hazardous conditions of a forest fire. They have a thick cuticle to protect from the smoke and heat.
Melanophila beetles are so adept at seeking out infrared radiation, they have been known to swarm on sport stadiums – attracted by the plumes of smoke caused from smoking cigarettes.
3. Black-Backed Woodpeckers
Where there is prey, so be there predators.
Like the wood-boring beetles, black-backed woodpeckers are solely reliant on burnt regions of forest for their own survival.
There are various hypotheses suggesting just how these woodpeckers locate freshly charred areas. The first, and rather obviously, is they can actively see the plumes of rising smoke.
Another theory suggests that they can detect the pheromones of the hordes of beetles that make their way into burnt trees.
The black-backed woodpecker is a fire specialist found in the coniferous forests of North America. They has evolved a sharp, chisel-like beak, perfect for drilling holes into the scorched and dying trees. They have one on their mind: the developing larvae of wood-boring beetles.
The larvae are a high source of protein-rich energy – the perfect snack for a woodpecker wanting to rear offspring of its own.
Not only is the black-backed woodpecker seemingly unafraid of fire, it actively uses the destruction of fire to its own benefit, reaping the rewards in the form of prey and a place to raise chicks.
A campfire should be in the arsenal of any adventurer or camper.
In the long wilderness nights, a campfire can lift morale by spreading heat and keeping unwanted animals at bay.
But it doesn’t repel every animal.
In North America, both brown and black bears are somewhat common, especially in the wilderness.
If you thought a mere campfire would keep them at bay whilst you sleep soundly in your tent, how wrong you would be.
During the daytime, when us humans are busy preparing food around the campfire, the grease from a sausage, the crumbs of some s’mores or a forgotten piece of fruit, can all be left behind. Each of these have a pungent smell that a bear finds irresistible.
So, when the humans retreat to the safety of their tents at night, bears are guided into the camp by the beacon of what is the campfire. With no noisy humans around, the bears are left to their own devices to scavenge any left over food they can find, undeterred by the flickering flames of the fire in the background.
If you do stumble across a bear in your camp, remain calm. Slowly back away, whilst maintaining eye contact. If the bear does not retreat, make yourself as big and as imposing as you can. Flash a bright light or make a sudden noise.
However, the biggest preventative method is to clean up all food after use! That is all the bear is interested in. An easy meal.
An unusual choice perhaps, but then again, chimps are our closest living relatives. It should come as no surprise that these tree-dwelling apes are not afraid of fire.
But yet, this behaviour did shock the scientists studying them.
In Senegal, Western Africa, certain populations of wild chimpanzees were observed performing ritualistic displays in the face of spreading grassland fires.
The researcher, Dr Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist at Iowa State University, observed that the chimps showed no sign of distress or fear as the fire spread. She suggested that the behaviour she witnessed was predictive, rather than responsive. The chips avoided the fire with ease, but did not flee the scenes, like so many other species.
The alpha male of the group was observed carrying out a “fire dance”. However, the reasoning for this dance is still under speculation.
Although, the research collected here could shed a light on how our early human ancestors controlled fire and how our behaviours changed – a turning point in the evolution of mankind.
Who knows. If chimps aren’t afraid of fire, perhaps “Planet of the Apes” isn’t fiction after all.
6. Marabou Storks
We’re back to the birds now.
But this is no ordinary bird. This is the world’s ugliest bird.
Towering up to 5 feet, or 1.5 meters, the marabou stork, found on the African savannah, uses a similar hunting technique to the firehawks when catching prey.
They take to the air and search the area for any signs of grass fires. With a plume of smoke in its sights, the marabou stork flies ahead of the fire and lands in front of the advancing flames.
From this vantage point, they can expertly pick off any animal attempting to flee.
And when I say any, I really do mean any animal. Marabou storks are opportunistic hunters, and if given the chance, will pick off fleeing reptiles, amphibians, mammals, insects and even other birds.
Fires, no matter if they are wildfires or campfires, can be dangerous.
Some animals, however, have exploited an ecological niche that allows them to thrive when fire presents itself.
Whether it’s to find food or a safe place to raise young, fires can offer successful opportunities to those who know where to look.
Although some species aren’t afraid of fire, us humans are having profound effects on the intensity and frequency of fires across the globe.
Whilst wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem, as the climate changes, wildfires are becoming increasingly common.
Many animal species, regardless if they are afraid of fire or not, will find it challenging to survive in such apocalyptic conditions. We humans have the power to curb the harmful effects we’re having on our planet so that all animals can thrive.