An­i­mal Be­hav­iour

A Very Short In­tro­duc­tion

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Books - Mark Greener

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.

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