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A nose isn't just a house on the face for the nostrils. Some of nature's most notable beaks can regulate heating and cooling, filter particles, act like fingers, or woo the ladies. These five great animal schnozzes, snoots, and suckers do a lot more than sniff.
1. Saiga (Saiga tataricus)
Saiga antelopes live on the unforgiving plains of Russia and Kazakhstan, where winters see subzero temperatures and summers are dry and desolate. Hang on, you're about to get jealous: the saiga's magnificent snoot is also a personal HVAC system. During hot, dusty summer migrations, the saiga's Gonzo-esque snout acts as an air filter and may even serve as an air conditioner, cooling down its owner’s blood. In the punishing depths of winter, it's a cozy little heater, warming up outside air before it hits the saiga’s lungs.
2. Star-Nosed Mole (Condylura cristata)
This handsome specimen is a star-nosed mole, and those fleshy little things on the front of its face are tentacles. Like most moles, C. cristata has terrible eyesight and spends much of its time underground or underwater. It digs straight ahead with its powerful claws, feeling around with its retractable tentacles. The mole's starry snoot-fingers are super fast, touching up to 12 objects each second and moving so quickly that they look like a creepy pink blur to the naked eye.
They're also super sensitive, and a mole can identify and stuff prey in its mouth within half a second. If that's not enough, scientists think the tentacles might also be able to pick up on faint electrical signals from aquatic prey. That would be useful, because star-nosed moles are also the only mammals that can smell underwater. They do this by blowing bubbles, then snorting the scent-filled bubbles back up their snoots.
3. Darwin's Hawk Moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta)
Behold one of the most legendary snoots in scientific history: the hawk moth. Three years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin turned his attention to orchids. He was fascinated by their diversity and the remarkable ways they've adapted to make themselves sexy to insects. To help him in his studies, fellow naturalist Robert Bateman mailed Darwin a package of orchid specimens, including Angraecum sesquipedale, which boasts an impressive foot-long nectary. Darwin was boggled. "Good Heavens," he wrote to a friend. "What insect can suck it?"
A few days later, he'd come up with an answer. There had to be a moth, he figured, with a foot-long proboscis. He wasn't exactly laughed out of the academy, but it did sound pretty stupid. But, as it turned out, Darwin was right—although he'd never know. Twenty years after his death, scientists found the Madagascan hawk moth Xanthopan morganii praedicta, complete with super-sized snoot.
4. Proboscis Monkey (Nasalis larvatus)
Once again, sexual selection is the name of the game: Proboscis monkey chicks dig a male with a big, bulbous honker. But the male's massive schnozz isn’t just for looks; scientists believe that it also works as an amplifier, making sure everybody can hear him.
You really can’t miss a male proboscis monkey. Even if he isn't yelling, you can’t overlook a 50-pound monkey with a big nose, webbed feet, a bright red penis, and a black scrotum. These guys don’t do subtle.
The very same obnoxious visibility that makes male proboscis monkeys so successful also makes them a target. Populations have plummeted in recent years, partly due to habitat loss, but also from hunting. These monkeys are lazy and easy to catch, which makes them a popular meal among local people. They also produce bezoars (gut-stones), which are sold as medicine in China.
5. Hooded Seal (Cystophora cristata)
Most seals are social, family-oriented animals who keep their face-parts to themselves. Not the hooded seal. With adult males averaging about 8 feet long and 660 pounds, this beast is enormous, territorial, and mean. Fights over females and feeding grounds involve biting, punching, bellowing, and waving around the football-sized pink balloons they keep in their noses.
These nasal sacs serve a number of unlikely purposes. When challenged, a male will inflate his balloon and shake it all over the place. To other males, this is apparently intimidating; to females, it’s hot as hell. This means that the males with the most magnificent nose-balloons get to mate and start a new generation of magnificent balloon-snooting babies. Nature is amazing.