In the U.S. it’s nearly Thanksgiving, a time we gather to appreciate what we have—and feel our waistlines expand like a puffer fish.
With the most food-centric holiday upon us, we wondered which non-human animals stuff themselves, and why?
No in-flight snacks
Many birds chow down to sustain themselves before long non-stop flights over oceans or deserts, says Dan Roby, a wildlife ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey and Oregon State University, by email. Scientists call these periods of intense feeding “hyperphagy.”
With one of the world’s longest migrations, the blackpoll warbler has to seriously fuel up before its trip. The tiny birds breed as far north as Alaska, and each year fly to New England, where they “double their weight by storing an amount of fat equal to their lean body weight,” Roby says, before an 80-hour nonstop flight over the Atlantic Ocean to Venezuela.
Likewise, bar-tailed godwits double their weight by storing fat to make it through a 10-day non-stop flight from Alaska to New Zealand, the longest of any animal. (Related: Alaska bird makes longest nonstop migration ever measured.)
The birds aren’t really overindulging like a human holiday eater, but putting on enough fat to get through a time of long fasts sometimes combined with intense exercise.
“In this context, “over-eating” is a critical adaptation for many birds,” Roby says.
Whale of an appetite
Then there are animals that eat massive quantities on a regular basis.
The largest animal on earth, the blue whale, puts away four tons of krill a day. That’s sounds like a lot, but this animal has a 200-ton body to feed, so that’s not a high percentage of its body weight.
In general, he says, if you compare consumption to body size, “the small animals eat more than the large animals.”
Tiny hummingbirds, for example, have a fast metabolism requiring them to eat about twice their weight in nectar every day, Finck says. It takes a lot of energy to keep them moving as fast as they do; their hearts beat 1,200 times a minute while in flight.
Other animals, such as big cats, eat huge amounts but feed less often. “Big cats in the wild do not make kills every day, so there are days they will not eat,” says Susan Bass of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. But then they will feed from a large kill for days, some guarding the meat so they can eat more later.
“Leopards can climb trees carrying an animal more than twice their weight” to keep it from other predators, Bass says.
Afton Tasler, Big Cat Rescue’s media producer, says tigers can eat between 35 and 90 pounds in a sitting, which is more than lions, who “share their kills with their pride.”
A 2013 study of Burmese pythons’ genes found that during digestion, changes in their gene activity allow their metabolism to increase and some of their organs to grow radically in size — up to 150 percent in 24 to 48 hours — and then return to normal after digestion. This “physical remodeling” allows the snakes to digest meals bigger than themselves.
In 2017 alone pythons of various species were caught on camera, devouring or regurgitating huge animals including a pregnant sheep and a monitor lizard. (Related: Seven python meals that got really ugly.)
Makes a little extra pie seem like no big deal.