During the COVID-19 lockdown, many online users turned to TikTok to alleviate their boredom. The video-sharing social networking site is crammed full of easily digestible clips, perfect for whiling away the hours. Unsurprisingly, many of these videos feature animals – both domestic and wild – but few explain the behaviours captured. We’ve gone ahead and done that for some of the most viral animal videos out there.

What is this elephant doing?

First up: an elephant standing on its hind legs. Is this normal? After all, African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) are the largest living terrestrial animals – bulls can reach a shoulder height of almost four metres!


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? original sound - michaellaubscher

"Elephants in the wild may often stand on their back legs when they are trying to reach vegetation that's high up in trees when they are foraging," explains Dr. Alida de Flamingh, a biologist who has studied these giants in the wild. "They stand up on their back legs and wrap their trunks around small branches and twigs, and then use their body weight to pull down and break off the branches/twigs." Their trunk is essentially a long nose, and contains about 40,000 muscles that are also used for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, and drinking.

Elephants are considered Vulnerable (VU) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to numerous threats like poaching and climate change, but they are legally protected throughout much of their range.

Why did this shark boop our snoot?

This next viral video is what dreams (or nightmares, for some) are made of.


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? No Idea - Don Toliver

The clear, blue water and barren rocky land seen in the clip suggest that this shark was probably filmed off Guadalupe, a volcanic island located in the Pacific Ocean, 150 miles off Mexico’s west coast. Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) arrive here in July each year and usually depart by late November. The island is believed to be a breeding site for great whites, but no one has seen them in action.

When a shark gets this close to an object, it can't actually see what's under its snout because of where its eyes are positioned. So it relies instead on special sensory organs called the ampullae of Lorenzini. Great white sharks have tiny holes in their snouts connected to a network of narrow pores and canals beneath the skin that are filled with a "jelly" that conducts weak electrical currents – the sort generated by heartbeats, muscle movements, or underwater cameras. The sharks use the specialised organs to detect minor electrical signals – a nifty trick that helps them track down their prey.

But this shark was not on the hunt. Chances are it was coming up for a closer look. The apex predators may poke their heads out of the water to see what is happening (this behaviour is called "spyhopping").

Do snow leopards use tools in the wild?

Elusive and solitary, snow leopards (Panthera unciahave) are rarely spotted in the wild. Their white-gray coat is covered in large black rosettes which helps them blend perfectly into their alpine habitat. Found in the steep and rocky mountains of over 12 central Asian countries (including China and Pakistan), their population numbers are dropping, and many mysteries still surround the species.

A recent viral TikTok video shows a young snow leopard with a stick in its mouth:


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? original sound - joeofthevalleyfolk

"In this video it looks like someone is holding the stick out of frame and giving the cub something to chew on," pointed out conservation biologist Dr. Imogene Cancellare. When asked if cats use tools, she explained, they "don’t use tools in the way we do – they don’t manipulate things with their paws like we would with our hands. They are strategic, however, in that they will use the landscape to their advantage when hunting. For example, [I] watched a snow leopard in China herd some blue sheep towards a fence on the side of a mountain so she could corral them for a better chance at an ambush."

Although they are shrouded in mystery snow leopards are, in many ways, not that different to other members of the feline family. If you own a cat, you have probably seen them eat grass or spend hours sitting at a high vantage point. It turns out, wild cats exhibit these behaviours as well. "I’ve seen a wild snow leopard eat grass to induce vomiting, and they spend a lot of time sitting somewhere with a vantage point to survey for hunting opportunities," said Cancellare.

Should we be touching whales?

Observing whales in the wild is a special experience, and many whale-watchers film their encounters – like these tourists did with a grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus).


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original sound - maddiee.booo

As their name suggests, the whales are a grey-marbled colour and instead of a dorsal fin they have a low hump with 'knuckles' between the hump and the tail. And if you're wondering about those patchy white spots you see on the whale's body, those are barnacles. These arthropods regularly colonise the skin of filter-feeding whales, attaching themselves to the ocean giants when they are free-swimming larva.

The first known whale-watching trips in the 1950s were focused on grey whales and today the animals still attract thousands of visitors as they make their yearly migration of 15,000-20,000 kilometres around the rim of the Pacific and down to Mexico. Grey whales are protected by international law, and their numbers have grown so much that in 1994, they were removed from the United States endangered species list.

This video appears to have been shot in Mexico. The government there has established strong whale-watching guidelines to not only regulate excursions and sightings, but to promote the conservation of whales off the Mexican coast.

So is this kind of interaction legal? "It is allowed as long as the whale approaches the boats and [the whale] allows [itself] to be touched. What is limited is going after the whales, harassing them to get to touch them," says Mariana Chávez Andrade, PhD student at the Laboratorio de Bioacústica y Ecología del Comportamiento, CIIDIR-Oaxaca. "The boat does not go sideways, this means that the captain of the boat gave [the passengers] the correct instructions so that not everyone went to the same side in order to touch [the whales] and some mishap could occur."

One more thing: the frantic screaming you can hear in the first video may sound a bit like, 'Shaaaaark!' but the alarming audio was taken from a different clip featuring Shawn Mendes fans screaming his name. We hope Mr Mendes is all for sustainable whale-watching experiences.

Header image: Brookfield Zoo