Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Animals and humans

There was a very interesting review of two books - Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina and The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell - in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. Interesting because of the approach to some animals; an approach that pointed out some of the commonalities between some animals and we human beings. The books were written by people who have spent their lives studying these animals - elephants, killer whales, bottlenosed dolphins, and wolves.

Before we talk about these animals, did you know that a great number of species, including earthworms - have emotions? Darwin said that earthworms “deserve to be called intelligent.  When evaluating materials for plugging their burrows, they act in nearly in the same manner as a man under similar circumstances.” And, of course, you now that emotions are the foundation blocks of relationships and personalities. 

But worms and most other species have small brains. It's the animals with bug brains that are the subjects of these books. Elephants are “intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate.” They have excellent memories, and are able to recognize up to one thousand individuals. So strong is elephant empathy that they sometimes bury their dead, and will return repeatedly to the skeleton of a deceased matriarch to fondle her tusks and bones. Elephants have been known to extract spears from wounded friends, and to stay with infants born with disabilities.

The connection between humans and animals seems to be strongest with wolves. Tough, flexible in social structure, capable of forming pair bonds and fitting into ever-shifting hierarchies, we were made for each other. 

Sperm whales have a number of human qualities. Whale females and young often live in “clans” of up to thirty individuals, while adult males, except when mating, live separate lives. And clans identify themselves by distinctive “dialects” of sonar clicks, which are passed on by learning, and act as markers of clan identity. They are an important part of the whale’s communication system, which enables the creatures to synchronize their diving, feeding, and other activities. So social are sperm whales that females share the care of the young of their clan, for example by staying at the surface with a young whale while its mother dives for food. Clan members are so closely bonded that they spend extended periods at the surface, nuzzling one another or staying in close body contact.

Male killer whales have a mother fixation. They never leave their mother’s clan, and despite their enormous size (growing to twice the weight of females), their fates remain deeply intertwined with those of their mothers. If their mothers should die, even fully adult males over thirty years old (they can live to over sixty) face an eight-fold increase in their risk of death. And then there's the thing about food. One clan of killer whales eats only a single species of salmon. Another kills only one species of seal.

A hundred or so years ago, at Twofold Bay south of Sydney, Australia, killer whales and humans set up a mutually profitable whaling enterprise. The killer whales would notify the whalers of the presence of humpback whales by performing a ritual in the waters of the bay fronting the whaler’s cottagers. The men would harpoon the humpbacks, and the killer whales would hold on to the harpoon ropes to tire the prey.

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