Morbid Curiosity

Bob Engel recently led a bird walk. Read all about it>

Bob Engel recently led a bird walk.
Read all about it>

by Bob Engel, Marlboro College Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science

I read a great article ("What I Learned From Tickling Apes") in the NYTimes this morning by Frans de Waal, a primatologist and psychologist. This piece was an excerpt from his book entitled, "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" 

Good question.

Mostly the answer is no. We continue to be preoccupied with our specialness in the scheme of things, but, increasingly, we’re in retreat. Other animals use and even build tools; some societal animals employ sophisticated communication and interact in other, very complex ways; and more and more animals have been found to be self aware. Increasingly, people who have studied animals for a while, getting to know their subjects well, come away a new respect for their sophistication and for how “human” they can be. These people include Robert Sapolski and his baboons, de Waal and his chimps, and Bernd Heinrich with his ravens.

Frans de Waal recoils from the admonishment that even if we and other animals appear to be doing identical things for identical reasons, we must use value neutral terms for what the critters do. Thus, humans can have “friends,” while other species exhibit “social affiliation.” For the hard heads, “friends” implies substantial consciousness and even ethical considerations. de Waal says, “In our haste to argue that animals are not people, we have forgotten that people are animals, too.” Any reasonably objective pet owner knows all of this.

For a while, I shared my living room with a small octopus (s/he was in a tank) and was dazzled by how quickly my charge came to understand my ways and how to communicate with me. It enthusiastically took food from my hand, tasting with its tentacles. Remember, evolutionarily, octopi are just fancy slugs! Whenever I see octopus on a restaurant menu, I feel like I’ve been invited to eat my cat.

All of this has to do with an event that took place in the front yard this morning. A mature Red-tailed hawk flew in and landed in a large pine tree. We have a field and the bird was hoping to turn up an unwary rodent; at least it studied the ground a lot. No such luck, but my eye was also caught by a “small” bird that took a few loops around the hawk. It was a jay, and just looked small in comparison. What was it doing?

A lot of birds “mob” potential predators, often resulting in the predator’s leaving. After all, if surprise is part of your hunting model, there isn’t a lot of surprise left when the whole neighborhood is yelling at you. But what I saw might be a little different. This jay was solo and quiet. It soon landed near the hawk and just perched there (red tails do eat the occasional bird).

I think I might have seen an example of predator inspection, a common response by potential prey to a predator. Why not check the horrible thing out and learn something useful? Might be dangerous, but also might be life-saving at some future date.

It’s been studied extensively in, of all things, guppies. Yep, just put a big, scary, fake fish at the end of the aquarium and a small number of guppies go check it out (why they cooperate in this was the issue). When they return to base (the other side of the tank), information is somehow transferred, and everybody is more erratic in their movements. There’s a similar thing with a group of female lions that hear a recording of a strange male’s roaring. They go looking for “him.” He’s dangerous because he could come in and kill all the kittens. For twenty years we had a big python at the College, and, when we took her outside for some exercise, most of the pea fowl on campus came galloping over to study the snake, a snake that would happily eat them.

So why did I mention de Waal earlier? Because we do the same thing. We collect at scenes of human tragedy, whether it’s a car crash, a train wreck, or some event with police lines drawn and injuries or bodies nearby. Take a look at any news photo of such a disaster. There we are, milling about, perhaps learning something…just like the other animals. So yes, “morbid curiosity” may give us an edge, too.