Despite having now posted twice on the topic, I’m not obsessed with nudity. I’m not a nudist, and I have no interest in becoming one. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who is a nudist. Nothing against them, of course, but in the context of everyday life it is certainly the exception. As adults, we are instead enamored of clothing, and we use it for so many functions. We use it to attract potential mates, to stay warm, and to indicate our affiliations with schools, brands, and institutions. A multibillion-dollar fashion industry has grown out of this intense use of garments. But this is an advanced state that we humans have achieved, and the primitive condition is much different.
If we look to the immature stages of humans we see what is clearly the ancestral state. In raising two young children it has become clear why we call it au naturale, and that the most primitive state for humans is not being clad in fancy getups, but is instead a simple birthday suit. It does crop up in private circumstances for adults too, of course, and I will direct interested parties to much of the rest of the internet for that. There are also occasional public expressions as well. Living on a college campus, I have found that there is the occasional moon here, a streaking there. There is even a popular song about it. Suffice it to say that although nudity crops up in certain situations in human life and serves certain functions, clothing is the rule rather than the exception.
In the rest of the animal kingdom, however, nudity reigns. Clothing use is extremely rare in animals, and the reasons for why this has only evolved in a small fraction of species are unclear. By using the term “clothing,” I am referring to instances where animals obtain external materials from their environment and apply them to their bodies. A technical term for this is “adventitious adornment,” but I’m going to just stick to calling it clothing and the lack thereof “nudity.” This is certainly anthropocentric terminology, but outside of humans clothing is almost exclusively the domain of a few invertebrates.
In insects, there are several groups that take materials from their environment and apply them to their bodies. The caterpillars of the emerald moth Synchlora frondaria take bits of the flowers on which they feed and sew them to spines on their backs with silk (see picture on this post). Other insects such as lacewing larvae disguise themselves with a cloak that can contain lichen, bark, plant fibers, and even spider webs. Come chrysomelid, or “leaf” beetles reclaim their own excrement – “frass” in entomological terms” – and attach it to the end of their abdomen to wave in the face of predators.
Other invertebrates also wear clothing, and some of the most fantastic are the mujid crabs. Their common names of “masking” or “decorator” crabs accurately describe the habit of these inverts as they actively place fragments of algae, wood, and parts of other invertebrates such as hydroids and bryozoans on their shells. Some sea urchins have a similar, if less selective, habit. Another example is the hermit crab, Eupargurus prideauxi, which takes clothing to a new level by attaching an Adamsia palliata anemone to its shell. This anemone, much like those that protect Nemo and other clownfish, have stinging nematocysts that ward of potential predators. Invertebrates certainly provide a number of interesting examples of clothing use, but given the huge number of their species, they reveal that clothing use is extremely rare.
And in vertebrates, clothing use is almost absent. Take mammals, for example. Outside of humans, I needed to do an extensive search to find another mammal that uses anything like clothing. Out on the Javan grasslands, Sunda sambars (a type of ungulate) spar in their characteristic territorial displays. Males engage in contests to attract females by roaring, and they then run through brush and pick up twigs and grass to make an impressive display on their antlers, effectively creating a type of headdress. But Sunda sambars are an obscure mammal, and why is it that one needs to work so hard to find single example of another mammal that uses clothes? Wouldn’t it make sense for at least one other primate, with an opposable thumb, to craft some primitive dress?
Outside of mammals, clothing use in other vertebrates is barren. No reptiles do it. No amphibians. No fish. No birds. Walt Whitman, naturalist and naturist, identified this pattern well before I was born (in Specimen Days in America, 1887):
Never before did I get so close to Nature; never before did she come so close to me…Nature was naked, and I was also… Sweet, sane, still Nakedness in Nature!
Animals have explored the evolutionary potential of so many aspects of morphology and behavior, and it is hard to understand why clothing hasn’t cropped up more. I am simply pointing to a pattern here because no comparative work has been done on this subject. So for now, I’m going to cue up Ray Stevens one more time, have a good laugh, and ponder the possibilities.