A Very Short Introduction
Tristram D Wyatt
Oxford University Press 2017
Pb, 146pp, illus, ind, bib, £7.99, ISBN 9780198712152
Our ancestors studied animal behaviour long before it became a science: their survival often depended on watching and predicting the behaviour of their prey and the creatures that preyed on us. Today, television documentaries – often, Wyatt points out, based on a “deep understanding of animal behaviour” – are perennially popular.
As Konrad Lorenz, who won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in animal behaviour, noted in King Solomon’s Ring: “Our fellow creatures can tell us the most beautiful stories”. (Everyone should read King
Solomon’s Ring at least once. It’s one of the most accessible, passionate and entertaining natural history books.) Tristram Wyatt’s concise, informative and insightful introduction to the fascinating world of animal behaviour allows you to begin to delve a bit deeper into the science behind those beautiful stories and amazing images.
For instance, changes in animal behaviour allow researchers to watch natural selection in real time. In 2001, a single male field cricket was heard on Kauai, a Hawaiian island. Over just a decade, the once widespread crickets had fallen silent and numbers had declined dramatically. The population had recovered in 2003; but the crickets no longer made their characteristic call. The struggle for survival between the cricket and a fly was to blame for the silence.
The fly uses the song to target, and lay eggs on, the male cricket. Her maggots paralyse the cricket, which the young flies eat alive. A previously rare mutant of the cricket lacks the ‘teeth’ and ‘scraper’ on the wings that crickets use to make the noise. Female crickets find the noise attractive, so silent males found mating difficult. But when the fly arrived, silence was golden – they survived to mate. Within 20 generations the silent cricket was common.
Wyatt’s book is packed with vignettes that remind us just how awe-inspiring biology really is. Take the North American Clark’s Nutcracker, a member of the Corvidæ family that also includes crows, ravens and jackdaws. During the late summer and autumn, a Clark’s Nutcracker hides some 30,000 pine seeds in groups of three to four in 2,500–3,000 different locations over 100 square miles. The nutcracker hides the seeds up to 20 miles from the pine tree. It’s a remarkable feat of memory: I sometimes forget where I’ve parked the car.
Discussing animal behaviour is, however, notoriously difficult. Anthropomorphising is tempting, but often misleading. Wyatt points out that if the Disney film accurately reflected biology “Nemo’s father would have stayed home and changed sex”. Coral reef anemonefish are among several species of reptiles and fish in which social and environmental cues determine whether they are male or female. Coral reef anemonefish live in communities. The largest fish is female, the second largest becomes male and her mate. The smaller fish do not breed. If the female dies, the male changes sex and the next largest fish becomes male.
Yet, Wyatt points out, studying animals can offer insights into human behaviour. After all, we use several simple “unconscious, and sometimes irrational, processes that we share with other animals… Valuing and studying these simpler mechanisms in animals might help us to better understand ourselves”. Despite our supposed ‘higher’ brains we share similar processes for some types of learning and responses to behaviour cues. Indeed, some animals use tools, communicate, even take medicinal plants for a specific pharmacological effect.
Meanwhile, revolutions in genetics, endocrinology (the study of hormones) and neurology offered important insights into the biological basis of behaviour. The hormone oxytocin, for instance, seems to influence nursing behaviour, maternal motivation and bonding in a range of species including sheep, mice and humans. Wyatt offers accessible (even if you’re not a biologist) summaries of many themes in the vanguard of animal behavioural research.
Importantly, Wyatt also highlights the current limitations. He notes, for example, that the brains of flies contain about 100,000 nerve cells – compared to some 100 billion in humans. Yet, despite this seeming simplicity, even with flies “we are just at the very beginning of an understanding that is likely to remain incomplete for decades to come”. So think how far we are from having any real understanding of ‘higher’ animals, such as humans, whales or dolphins.
Wyatt also highlights the often lack of reproducibility (which is attracting increasing attention across many sciences). With the exception of honeybees, which have attracted considerable attention from several groups, Wyatt notes that there is “rarely the opportunity for replication [of a study’s findings] by independent researchers”. Usually, researchers look at a new species rather than seeing if the findings apply to the same species in different circumstances.
So, read Wyatt’s compelling introduction before you watch the next nature documentary. It’ll deepen and widen your understanding and appreciation of these beautiful stories. If you’re sitting comfortably, Wyatt’s book is a great place to begin.