Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Sunday, July 16, 2006


In what could be the most shocking revelation since Boy George came out of the closet, an interesting paper in the latest issue of the journal Science describes teaching behavior among Slender-tailed Meerkats (Suricata suricatta). The Afrikaans name “Meerkat” is used for three monotypic genera of South African mongooses, so in this post I'll use instead the name “Suricate,” which is attached only to Suricata, the subject of the paper, and the most social of the three. It is found throughout the southern quarter of Africa, and lives in colonies of as many as fifty individuals. I should have a Suricate painting for you, and it shames me to have never even painted a member of their fantastic family. The Asian marten I'm forced to illustrate this post with is a sorry stand-in. Anyway, according to the paper, Suricate colonies are dominated by a single pair that is responsible for more than 80% of the group's reproduction. This was a bit of a letdown for me to read, since I had been under the impression they comprised two or three cooperating pairs and their offspring, a kind of social structure that is far less common. Suricate groups occupy small territories centered around the communal burrow, and individuals rarely stray outside the area. Their diet consists mostly of arthropods, but they also eat eggs and small vertebrate prey. The authors of the Science paper, Thornton and McAuliffe, report that at about one month of age, pups begin to join older animals on foraging sorties, where they are typically presented with killed prey items. As the pups become more experienced, these are replaced by live and incrementally less disabled prey (the interesting example of a scorpion with a bitten-off stinger was cited) and finally by fully functioning quarry. The authors assert that this behavior falls within the definition of teaching put forth by Caro and Hauser: "(i.) an individual, A, modifies its behaviour only in the presence of a naïve observer, B; (ii) A incurs some cost or derives no immediate benefit; and (iii) as a result of A's behaviour, B acquires knowledge or skills more rapidly or efficiently than it would otherwise, or that it would not have learned at all." Of course it is difficult to interpret what motivates the older animals to mangle prey items a bit less as the pups' education develops. Do they make judgments based on actual assessments of the pups' skills? Hard to say. The evolutionary benefit to the teachers is more clear when coupled with the information that the colony consists essentially of a single family.

The paper presents a nice set of observations on Suricate behavior, but despite press accounts to the contrary, it offers little new information about animal behavior in general. Rather, it represents another step in our shifting interpretation of animal behavior. When I was in college, in the late 1970s, the cardinal ethological sin was anthropomorphism. Although their vehemence may have been in part a policy meant to dissuade undergraduates who were too eager to go overboard in that direction, my professors were uniformly intolerant of any comparisons between the motivations of humans and non-humans. I saw it then (and still do) as a carry-over of our unfortunate tendency to separate ourselves from the rest of nature. The very idea of the word “nature,” meaning all that is not human, is kind of twisted, but that line we draw affects everything we do, from our daily personal routines to our national wildlife management policies. In the past couple of decades, though, the ethologists have come a long way, and today, many of them are all too happy to see instincts and emotions as the same thing. The behavior that Thornton and McAuliffe described is not anomalous in the least. It's receiving attention because they made a strong case for calling it what it is: education. Anyone who's had a litter of kittens raised in their home, or who's spent a lot of time in a blind on a raptor's nest has seen similar teaching behavior. So important is hunting education to falcons (Falco spp.), that without it a hungry young bird will simply look at a pigeon and scream to be fed. Falconers understood this centuries ago, and developed a routine called “entering,” that mimics the education provided by a parent falcon.

It's often surprising how different percption can be in two closely related species, so we should expect our own perceptions to differ from those of other vertebrates. Still, our behavior is guided by the same principles as the other members of our phylum. Our actions are largely influenced by emotions like love, joy, anger, guilt, envy and sorrow. These motivations are not the province of our species alone, nor, does it seem, is education.
lower: SMOKE JUMPER--APLOMADO FALCON (1994) acrylic 19" x 30"


Blogger Xris said...

Really? You were surprised when Boy George came out?! [g]

I'm not able to read the original paper, since I don't subscribe to Science, but I have been avidly following the various news reports. To me, the most subtle and impressive aspect of the teaching behaviors I've heard about, as you mention, is how they handle potentially dangerous prey, such as scorpions, by disabling or disarming it before presentation to an inexperienced youngster. This would seem to require multiple assessments: the difficulty of the lesson, the capabilities of the student, and the student's readiness to handle the material. We should all enjoy such one-on-one instruction.

4:08 AM  
Blogger cpbvk said...

Ah, but do they remove the stingers for the pups' protection or for their own?

11:59 AM  
Blogger wolf21m said...

I also heard about this study on Science Friday. Very interesting. While I appreciate the emphasis for people to not anthropomorphize our behaviors on animals, I find the opposite to be true most of the time - people assume that all non-humans are unintelligent. Having watched wolves carefully, I am constantly amazed at the sophistication of their behavior. While much of it is simply learned from observation, I would not be surprised at all to witness true teaching. Are you aware of any possible teaching behavior in owls? BTW, thanks for the anniversary wishes.

4:49 PM  
Blogger cpbvk said...

Hey, twelve years of marriage is an accomplishment--take it from a guy who's never had a second date. I agree with your assessment of animal education. Unfortunately, nocturnal owls are so hard to observe, I don't have any insight at all on teaching. Never been able to find a Short-ear nest. Their overall behavior is so distinct from falconiformes, I wouldn't even have any guesses. Interesting question.

11:09 PM  
Blogger wolf21m said...

I asked about owls as they seem to be a fairly close family group through the fall. This seems to tell me that a great deal of education is required, otherwise, they would split up more quickly. Since i haven't seen any hunting behavior mayself, I was wondering if there might be something that stands out as possibly teaching. I'll clearly pay more attention now for the subleties of teaching - in owls, wolves, and other species I watch.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Matt Mullenix said...

Carel I've spent many long hours in hot canvas blinds watching Cooper's hawks raise their young. Ditto chasing the daddies around the countryside while they foraged. We (those in the study) all expected to see some teaching behavior of the kind often cited by falconers---in fact by us, with four falconers on the team---but to my recollection we saw none in the Cooper's hawks' rearing that we could recognize as such.

Specifically, we were looking for either males or females bringing in live birds and releasing them for the young. We did not see that, but did see toward the end of the nesting cycles a more hurried dropping-off of prey and more prey brought in with feathers on. This might have been a form of teaching, but my impression was that this was a response to the greater food demands of the young and their obnoxious chasing around of their parents in the nest lot. In other words, the adults seemed to be hunting as hard and often as possible and sticking around as little as possible.

Of course, if there was more obvious teaching going on after this point in the cycle, we would have missed it. But we do know from radio work that the adult females dispersed early (and often FAR) to set up private hunting schedules elsewhere. The males stayed around the terrory and frequently saw the young to dispersal, but were soon themselves to be self-hunting.

I was interested to read some years ago in a modern falconry book that Cooper's hawks intentionally release hindered prey for their young. the author cited this I think to support the falconer's use of bagged game. I have no strong opinion against bagged game (have used plenty myself) but we could not confirm this claim from our obsr. of wild birds.

Finally (whew! Sorry!) I have to say that as a falconer (and a Harris hawker), I feel certain that hawks are cabable of learning very specific behaviors by watching others, even other species. So whether or not intentional teaching occurs in the Cooper's hawk, the young can probably put 2 and 2 together well enough on their own.

9:43 AM  
Blogger cpbvk said...

Thanks for your comments, Matt. They confirm my own experience with Coopers' Hawks. I have not seen adult accipiters engage in what I'd call teaching, like falcons do. I've never spent much time watching wild Harris' Hawks at the nest, which I'm sure would be very interesting. I'd expect to see teaching behavior in those birds.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Matt Mullenix said...

I'll have to look through my books to see if anything of this kind as been noted in the Harris. I don't recall reading it. Our own HHs (flown in multi-generational groups of genetically related birds) show, as has been observed by many others, extreme tollerance of young hawks in the field. There is clearly a kind of visual communication at work and I think sometimes a sort of emergent cooperation (that might not quite rise to the level of conscious planning). But I have never seen anything that would meet the definition of teaching you cite in your post.

However, a good story: My friends once observed in a troupe of wild HHs, one healthy individual pulling the head from a jackrabbit taken by several birds and fly it back to an apparently injured individual in a low bush far behind the hunting band. Similar behavior has been observed (see here: Harris Hawk: Wounded Warrior

Clearly this species is capable of pretty high level thought and action on behalf of others.

10:57 AM  
Blogger cpbvk said...

That's an interesting article, Matt. One of these years I'll have to spend some time watching Harris' in Baja. Incidentally, I didn't mean to imply that I see any evidence of Suricates or falcons cognitively educating their young.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Matt Mullenix said...

>>"I didn't mean to imply that I see any evidence of Suricates or falcons cognitively educating their young."

C'mon Carel: In for a penny, in for a pound! :-) Why not cognition? The teaching theory almost demands it. And once you've made that leap, forethought and planning become the simplest explanations for the behavior.

But of course, then we've got to give hawks social security numbers and let dogs enter legal contracts and such. Maybe we don't want to go there!

PS: HHs in Baja? Cool. I don't know why I didn't think they would be there. The whole peninsula?

3:25 AM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

It's probably late for a comment but I did read the science paper. There is really no evidence for complex assesments or judgements from the adults. They handle the prey according to the calls of young suricates, calls that change as they age. In fact they taped vocalizations of older cubs and played them to adults with younger cubs and as a result the adults gave the unfortunate cubs non-disabled prey. It's mostly an automated behavior.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Xris said...

"Ah, but do they remove the stingers for the pups' protection or for their own?"

If they always remove the stingers, then their own. (I know I would!) The "teaching moment" would come when they "think" the young can remove the stinger on their own, and leave it intact for the young to remove.

PS: Your book is beautiful. I read the chapter on your falconry experiences. It gave me a sense of what it's like. It must also informa and inspire your art, to be able to see the world through others' eyes.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Xris said...

I just read the comment from from "filipe," who has read the paper, about the vocalizations. That's interesting.

How much of my own complex behavior is simply instinctive and automatic, with my "consciousness" just going along for the ride ...

8:42 AM  
Blogger cpbvk said...

Matt: Ha! You make a good point. I waded into turbulent water when I started ascribing motivations outside of my own species. Still, I think the assessment of the effects of an organism's own behavior is extremely rare in nature. If someone pops me in the nose, I pop him back, not because I've determined that will affect his behavior in a way i want, but because of far more basic motivation...and yeah, Baja California is lousy with Harrises, in good habitat through the whole peninsula.
Felipe: It's never too late to comment. Thanks for bringing up that good point about the vocalizations. I'd forgotten about that.
Xris: How much of my own complex behavior is simply instinctive and automatic, with my "consciousness" just going along for the ride ...
That's a very good point. I think it's safer to draw behavioral comparisons in our own direction, rather than away. Thanks also, for your nice comments about my book. I'm very happy to hear you're enjoying it.

12:05 PM  

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