Show Me the Honey! Honeyguides and Humans Team Up at Dinnertime

Humans have a long history of spotting superior abilities in other animals, and then training those animals to use those abilities to advance our own interests. Everyone’s familiar with how we’ve trained pigs to sniff out truffles for us with their sensitive snouts and how we’ve domesticated dogs to herd our livestock, alert us to intruders, guide us when our vision fails, and perform other services. Similar but less well-known examples include our training bees to detect the odor of explosives, cormorants to catch fish for us, and llamas to guard our sheep from coyotes and other predators.

It’s far less common, though, to find relationships where non-humans participate on a more equal footing, where they appear to train us at least as much as we train them. (People who are owned by cats should feel free to rebut this statement in the comment section below.)

Today’s post features one such relationship, the partnership between humans and the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), a bird that lives in the trees of sub-Saharan Africa.

Honeyguides and humans have very complementary appetites. Honeyguides get most of their food from beehives, feasting on larvae and wax that they extract from honeycombs (yes, they actually eat and can digest the wax!). Of course humans, too, seek out beehives, although our interest lies more in the bees’ sweet honey, and we’re generally more than happy to leave the wax and grubs for others to enjoy.

The bee-related skills of humans and honeyguides are relatively complementary as well. Honeyguides can fly swiftly across large areas and are expert at locating bee colonies, but have difficulty in extricating the combs on their own. Humans move more slowly along the ground and aren’t so adept at finding colonies, but once we have one in our sights, we’re able to overcome bee defenses and dig the combs out, even when the bees have nested deep within rock crevices and other hard-to-reach locations.

Out of this opportunity for mutualistic benefit, honeyguides and humans have worked out an elaborate interspecies communication system that allows them to work in tandem with certain signals understood by both parties.  This partnership has been formally documented in a three year field study conducted in the dry bush country of northern Kenya, focusing on the interactions between honeyguides and the nomadic Boran people who populate the area.

I’m the *real* Greater Honeyguide – don’t let imposters lead you astray! Visit me at http://safari-ecology.blogspot.com/ and see first comment below.

Each partner knows how to get the other’s attention. To attract the birds, the Borans call them with a penetrating whistle (known in the Boran language as Fuulido) that can be heard over a distances of greater than a kilometer and that is made by blowing air into clasped fists, modified snail shells, or hollowed-out palm nuts. Comparably, hungry honeyguides flag down humans by flying up close, moving restlessly from perch to perch, and emitting a double-noted, persistent “tirr-tirr-tirr-tirr” call. (Side note: I’ve been practicing this at home, and it doesn’t seem to attract much other than odd stares and raised eyebrows.)

The joint food expedition commences when the honeyguide flies briefly out of sight and then returns to a nearby, conspicuously visible perch. When the human companion approaches this perch, the honeyguide takes off, displaying its white outer tail feathers, and flies to a new resting place a short distance away, calling loudly when it lands. The Boran partner then approaches the new perch and the bird flies off again, repeating the pattern. As the Borans work with the bird, they whistle and shout to keep the bird interested in guiding. (Again, this doesn’t seem to work too well at home.)

The researchers found that the honeyguides signal the path and distance to the bee colony in a variety of ways. First, they indicate the correct direction through their flight paths, traveling consistently in the direction of the nest and increasing their precision as they near the target. It appears that the know in advance where the nests are located, as the researchers observed the honeyguides briefly visiting nests before dawn, peering into the entrances while it was still dark and the bees were docile.

Also, the honeyguides vary their behavior depending on distance to the hive. For example, when the hive is relatively distant, the birds begin the process with a relatively long disappearance during their first flight; conversely, their first disappearance is briefer when the hive is relatively nearby. Further, the honeyguides stop more frequently and the legs between perches become shorter as they and their human followers approach the nest, especially during the last 200 meters. Finally, the honeyguides select increasingly lower perches as they close in on the colony.

Upon arrival at the destination, the honeyguides perch close to the nest and emits an “indication call.” The researchers describe the scene as follows:

This call differs from the previous guiding call in that it has a softer tone, with longer intervals between successive notes. There is also a diminished response, if any at all, to whistling and shouting by humans. After a few indication calls, the bird remains silent. When approached by the searching gatherer, it flies to another perch close by, sometimes after circling around the nest. The resulting flight path finally reveals the location of the colony to the gatherer. If the honey collector does not (or pretends not to) detect the nest, the bird gives up after a while. It may then leave the area either silently or start a guiding session to another colony. In the latter case, it switches from the indication call to the guiding call and resumes a fairly direct flight pattern. Once the human team members find the nest, it becomes their turn to go to work and hold up their part of the bargain. After using smoky fires to reduce the bees’ aggression, the Boran honey gatherers use tools or their hands to remove the honey comb, and then break off pieces to be shared with their honeyguide partners.

To sum things up, here’s a great BBC video (featuring David Attenborough!) that describes the bird-human partnership and shows the honeyguides in action:

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ResearchBlogging.org
Isack, H., & Reyer, H. (1989). Honeyguides and Honey Gatherers: Interspecific Communication in a Symbiotic Relationship Science, 243 (4896), 1343-1346 DOI: 10.1126/science.243.4896.1343.

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An Uplifting Dolphin Story. Literally.

I’ve always found friendly interactions between animals of different species to be oddly reassuring. After all, the world can’t be all that bad a place if two animals, separated by differing genetic backgrounds and behavioral imperatives, can find a way to reach across the biological divide and share something, something joyful and positive.

Because of this, I’m an absolute sucker for all of those YouTube videos of cats curling up with mice, horses who befriend sheep, elephants and dogs who are inseparable, and the like. You know the ones I mean.

Many times, though, these are artificial pairings that spring up after we humans have altered the environment, habituating or even confining the animals with one another. While these human-influenced relationships can be incredibly heartwarming, it somehow seems even more magical when animals forge connections across species boundaries in the wild, in their native habitats and without any human intervention.

With that background, I’d like to introduce a paper published last year in the journal Aquatic Mammals1, which reports on two separate playful and – as you’ll see – uplifting encounters between bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).

The first took place on a January afternoon off the northwest coast of Kauai, when a group of eight bottlenose dolphins met up with a pair of humpback whales. Two of the dolphins – apparently adults – approached one of the whales, first appearing to surf the pressure wave created by the whale’s head as it swam, and later taking turns lying perpendicularly across the whale’s rostrum when it surfaced to breathe. Then, while one of the dolphins lay balanced over the end of its rostrum, the whale stopped and slowly lifted the dolphin high into the air. The dolphin maintained an arched position and made no effort to escape, allowing the whale to continue lifting until it was nearly vertical in the water, at which point the dolphin slid down the whale’s rostrum, dove into the water, and porpoised back to its fellow dolphins.

Here’s a color photo of the dolphin just about to go whale-sliding:

Look Ma, No Hands! (photo credit: L. Mazzuca)

And here’s a black and white series of shots that captures the full adventure sequence:

The second encounter also occurred on a January afternoon, this time off the northwest coast of Maui, when an adult female bottlenose dolphin swam up to a mother humpback whale and her calf. After diving underwater, the dolphin and mother whale resurfaced with the dolphin resting across the mother whale’s rostrum. The mother then proceeded to lift the dolphin a total of six times over 8.5 minutes, with the dolphin either lying on her stomach or right side during the lifts, which varied in length from four to 45 seconds. Again, the dolphin made no attempt to escape and held her position in such a way as to facilitate the whale’s lifting.

Here’s a sequence of photos showing this second duo demonstrating the proper technique for lifting a relaxed-looking dolphin:

The authors of the Aquatic Mammals paper considered alternate explanations for these interactions, including whether they represented an aggressive whale response to an antagonistic dolphin approach, whether the whales were demonstrating concern regarding perceived distress in the dolphins, or whether the cetaceans were simply playing together. They found the first two hypotheses to be unlikely – among other things, the interactions were too cooperative and relaxed in pace to be aggressive, and the dolphins were in good health and showed no evidence of distress. In the end, while the authors didn’t rule out the possibility that maternal instinct was involved in the whales’ lifting behavior, they concluded that the best explanation was that these were simply instances of interspecies play between the bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales.

Further, these bouts of play between dolphins and whales may not be all that uncommon, as back within the friendly confines of YouTube I was able to locate a video documenting another episode in which a bottlenose dolphin went for a ride on the rostrum of a humpback whale:

Play may serve a number of important purposes – for example, it may provide an avenue for intelligent, social animals like dolphins and whales to experiment with their surroundings, hone their physical skills and learn how to interact collaboratively with others. But aside from any practical evolutionary significance, I like to think of these encounters as illustrating how animals can, on occasion, take a few minutes away from the serious business of survival to share some pure joy and wonder with a fellow being, even a fellow being of a different species.

So, all of this is comforting. If dolphins and whales (and other animals who form interspecies bonds) can find a way to communicate playfulness with each other and to share experiences without any kind of a common language, perhaps we humans can do a bit better ourselves. Maybe some of the divides we see today – political discord, religious conflict, international posturing, cultural and racial inequities – aren’t so unbridgeable after all. Perhaps all we need to do is to remember an uplifting dolphin story or two.

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ResearchBlogging.org1Deakos, M., Branstetter, B., Mazzuca, L., Fertl, D., & Mobley, J. (2010). Two Unusual Interactions Between a Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and a Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Hawaiian Waters Aquatic Mammals, 36 (2), 121-128 DOI: 10.1578/AM.36.2.2010.121.

Converging with Canines: Are Humans and Dogs Evolving Together?

In our man-made world, it can feel like everything is converging all at once. Indistinguishable glass skyscrapers sprout up in cities all over the globe, near identical car models vent carbon dioxide into the air on different continents, and people around the world see their waistbands expand as they gulp down the same McFood. Global economies are more connected than ever, with natural disasters in Japan, sovereign debt issues in Europe, and rumors of Wall Street misdeeds shaking worldwide markets within minutes. Even the social media that deluge us with information seem like they’re growing more and more alike, as we now drown in unending streams of look-alike feeds, postings, messages and links from Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and others.

You may wonder whether the forces of convergence are a recent phenomenon, a product of human technology, or whether they may have deeper roots in the natural world. In fact, convergence can and does occur in the realm of biological evolution, albeit at a more comfortable pace. For example, “convergent evolution” occurs when different species independently evolve similar solutions to comparable evolutionary pressures. A classic example of this is the development of wings and the ability to fly by birds, bats and pterosaurs:

Diagram of wing morphology and/or and comparative network hub structure of Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (image credit: National Center for Science Education)

Consider also the independent evolution of sleek, torpedo-shaped bodies by fish, cetaceans and ichthyosaurs:

Sleek ocean swimmers (image credit: All About Reptiles)

Closer to home, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have concluded that we may be undergoing a process of cognitive convergent evolution with dogs based on our social relationships over thousands of years with these “best friends” of ours. In a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Brian Hare and Michael Tomasello reviewed a large number of studies focused on canine, human, and non-human primate social and communicative skills and reached some interesting conclusions.

Proof of convergent canine-human evolution (source unknown)

They began their analysis by focusing on research showing how well domestic dogs do at interpreting human social and communicative behavior. For example, dogs excel at tests in which experimenters hide food in one of several opaque containers and then signal where it has been hidden by pointing, gazing, bowing or nodding, or placing markers in front of the target location. The dogs easily interpret this type of cue, passing tests such as these on the first attempt and performing correctly even when humans try to trick them by walking towards the wrong container while pointing in the opposite direction to the correct container.

Also, studies have shown that dogs are aware of what humans can see. For instance, if a human turns around during a game of fetch, the dog will almost invariably bring the ball back around the human and drop the ball in front of his face. Similarly, dogs have shown that they prefer to beg for food from humans whose eyes are visible than from ones whose eyes are covered with a blindfold or bucket, but are more likely to approach forbidden food when a human’s eyes are closed.

Indeed, dogs actually consistently outperform chimpanzees and other primates at these types of skills, even though, in areas of non-social cognitive performance, dogs do not do so well. For example, non-human great apes are much better at making inferences about the location of hidden food based on non-social cues (such as a tilted board that might be tipped up by hidden treats) and at tests that require them to achieve food rewards by, for example, reeling in food attached to strings.

With this in mind, Hare and Tomasello turned to whether domestic dogs’ specialized social skills are likely to be due to convergent cognitive evolution with humans or whether another explanation is more plausible.

First, they considered the possibility that dogs learn to recognize human social cues based on their experiences growing up in human households. They found, however, that studies show that even puppies as young as nine weeks old are adept at solving problems using human pointing and gaze cues, and that puppies raised without much exposure to humans are equally skilled at interpreting these cues.

Then, they considered whether domestic dogs may have simply inherited their social skills based on their common ancestry with wolves, since wolves are, after all, pack hunters who need to be able to follow complex social interactions with other wolves and with prey. However, although wolves are generally equal to or better than domestic dogs at memory tests and tasks involving general problem-solving abilities, wolves (even those raised by humans) are simply unable to match the performance of dogs at spontaneously using human social cues to solve problems.

Next, the researchers sought evidence for the evolution of social skills in dogs through their long-term relationship with humans. They looked at a population of domesticated foxes, where the selection for breeding had been based solely on the tendency of individual foxes to be non-aggressive and fearless around humans. Interestingly, these foxes were just as adept as dogs in using and interpreting human social cues, and far better than a population of control foxes that had been bread randomly with respect to their attitude towards humans.

Based on all of these comparative findings, Hare and Tomasello concluded that the best explanation for dogs’ specialized social skills is that they evolved as a consequence of dogs having been domesticating by humans, representing a case of convergent cognitive evolution. Interestingly, Hare and Tomasello went further and, based on their review of the research on domesticated foxes, concluded that the evolution of specialized social skills in domesticated dogs may actually have been an incidental byproduct of an initial decision to select based solely on nonaggression (as opposed to social intelligence).

Finally, turning to primate evolution, Hare and Tomasello speculated that a similar process may have contributed to differences between human and chimpanzee social skills. Under what they refer to as the “emotional reactivity” hypothesis, they predicted that differences in temperament between humans and other primates may help explain some of humans’ extraordinary social cognitive abilities. They point to studies showing that chimpanzees’ willingness to cooperate with each other can often be limited by lack of social tolerance for one another resulting from fear and/or aggression, and contrast this to a more socially tolerant temperament that may ultimately have enabled our hominid ancestors to develop flexible forms of cooperation and communication. In other words, humans underwent a form of self-domestication leading to greater social abilities, thereby convergently evolving with our canine companions who were undergoing the same process.

I’m not sure I entirely buy the notion that we humans are so exceptionally tolerant, but I have noticed that you’ve started to look a bit like your dog. In a future post, we may look at whether we may also be evolving to be more like members of the cat family:

Which one is the lion? (source unknown)

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ResearchBlogging.orgHare, B., & Tomasello, M. (2005). Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9 (9), 439-444 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2005.07.003

Rise of the Planet of the Ants

These days, we’ve been hearing quite a bit about a future in which humans find their dominion over the planet suddenly challenged by a group of super intelligent apes. This may make for an exciting Hollywood movie plot and some stunning visual effects, but I wonder whether we really need to look to humanoid science fiction in order to feel a shiver of doubt regarding our supremacy as a species.

Maybe all we need to do is to look at the world the way it is, a world that could well be called … The Planet of the Ants!

So, why is it that we should feel just a wee bit threatened by these small six-legged colonizers? Here are just a few reasons.

Quadrillions of Ants

Burning Man seems more crowded every year, doesn't it? (photo credit: Mehmet Karatay)

Like us, ants thrive just about anywhere, with the exception of Antarctica and a few isolated islands. Moreover, while there are approximately seven billion of us on the planet, conservative estimates put the number of ants at between one and ten quadrillion.1 That’s between 150,000 and 1,500,000 ants for each and every one of us. At the higher figure, this means that, if you were to put all the world’s ants onto a giant scale, they would weigh about as much as all of the humans on the planet put together.2 In fact, on average, it has been estimated that ants make up 15–20% of the terrestrial animal biomass on Earth (and more than 25% of the animal biomass in tropical regions).3

Our tendency as humans is to unquestioningly assume that we are far and away the most successful species that has ever been. If we take a step back, though, and simply consider the above numbers and the possibility that an animal’s success is most properly measured by the degree to which it has been able to thrive in various environments, perhaps we should already be feeling a pang of doubt about how incontestable our supremacy really is.

Ants Teach

While many animals are able to learn through imitation, ants are the only non-mammal known to engage in interactive teaching.4 In at least one species of ant, knowledgeable workers actively teach inexperienced nest mates where to find food through a process known as “tandem running,” in which the lead worker ant recruits an inexpert follower, and then makes sure that the follower stays on track, slowing down when it lags and speeding up when it gets too close.

Ants Learn

Ants are also able to engage in so-called latent learning, whereby they memorize information that they cannot use at once, but that may be useful later on – a behavior that’s been labeled as “planning.”5 Specifically, ants have been shown to be able to reconnoiter potential new living spaces, retaining information about relative desirability and tailoring their choices based on how urgently the need to move is.

Ants Can Learn to Navigate Mazes

Ants can be trained to remember multiple visual patterns presented in a fixed sequence, enabling them to navigate mazes.6 Ok, I’m not sure how exactly this leads to world domination, but it is definitely pretty cool.

Ants Practice Agriculture

Approximately 50 million years ago (and, accordingly, approximately 49+ million years before Homo Sapiens first arose as a species), ants began engaging in agriculture.7 Today, different species of leafcutter ants have adopted a purely agrarian lifestyle, feeding exclusively on gardens of fungus that they actively weed and cultivate, feed with fresh-cut leaves, and keep free from parasites and other pests.8 Here’s a video of some fungus farming ants:

Ants Engage in Animal Husbandry

Some ants raise aphids and feed on the sugary honeydew the aphids secrete when “milked” by the ants’ antennae. The ants are careful with their herds, keeping predators and parasites away, moving the aphids from one feeding location to another, and often bringing the aphids with them when they migrate.9 Here’s a video of ants tending to their aphids:

Ants Sometimes Enslave Other Ants

Certain types of ants are incorrigible slave-makers, raiding other colonies of ants and making captured slaves perform all routine tasks for their masters, including brood care, foraging, and even feeding slave-maker workers who are unable to feed themselves.10 Obviously, this isn’t a particularly attractive ant characteristic, but unfortunately it is one that may seem all too familiar to us humans.

Ants Use Tools

That’s right, tools. For example, some ants transport liquid and other non-solid food by dropping bits of leaves, sand or mud pellets or pieces of wood into a pool of food and, after the food has soaked in, using these objects to carry the meal back to their nests.11 Other ants use pebbles and soil pellets as weapons, dropping them on other ants or ground-dwelling bees, and then attacking and killing their competitors.12

Ants Build Cooperative Solutions

Hey, watch your foot! You're stepping on my head! (photo: Mlot, Tovey & Hu)

Ants, including army ants, are known to self-assemble into living bridges or ladders that allow them to cross gaps while on the move. When a single ant cannot make it across alone, other ants will successively grab on, steadily lengthening the bridge until it’s long enough to reach the destination. These structures, which can span significant distances and can even cross water, are then used by the rest of the colony and may stay in place for hours, until traffic dies down.13 Comparably, fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods. These rafts can be made up from anywhere from a few hundred to many thousand ants and are incredibly durable, allowing ants to sail for months at a time as they migrate.

Ants Have “Collective Intelligence”

The concept of collective intelligence has been hot lately, with a number of books and articles describing how groups can make collectively make sophisticated decisions and solve complex problems, even where each individual in the group knows very little, collectively a g (think of the analogy of each individual acting as a neuron, and the group as a whole acting as a collective brain). Collective intelligence is a topic unto itself, one we may address in future posts, but for now suffice it to say that if ants truly can make wise decisions as a group, we humans may really have something to envy!

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ResearchBlogging.org1Holldobler, B & E. O. Wilson (2009). The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 5. ISBN 0-393-06704-1.

2Ibid.

3Schultz, T. (2000). In search of ant ancestors Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97 (26), 14028-14029 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.011513798.

4Franks, N., & Richardson, T. (2006). Teaching in tandem-running ants Nature, 439 (7073), 153-153 DOI: 10.1038/439153a; Richardson, T., Sleeman, P., McNamara, J., Houston, A., & Franks, N. (2007). Teaching with Evaluation in Ants Current Biology, 17 (17), 1520-1526 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.08.032.

5Franks, N., Hooper, J., Dornhaus, A., Aukett, P., Hayward, A., & Berghoff, S. (2007). Reconnaissance and latent learning in ants Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274 (1617), 1505-1509 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.0138.

6Chameron, S., Schatz, B., Pastergue-Ruiz, I., Beugnon, G., & Collett, T. (1998). The learning of a sequence of visual patterns by the ant Cataglyphis cursor Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 265 (1412), 2309-2313 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1998.0576; Reznikova, Z. 2008: Experimental paradigms for studying cognition and communication in ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Myrmecological News 11: 201-214.

7Schultz, T., & Brady, S. (2008). From the Cover: Major evolutionary transitions in ant agriculture Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (14), 5435-5440 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0711024105.

8Ibid.; Schultz, T. (1999). Ants, plants and antibiotics. Nature, 398 (6730), 747-748 DOI: 10.1038/19619.

9Nielsen, C., Agrawal, A., & Hajek, A. (2009). Ants defend aphids against lethal disease Biology Letters, 6 (2), 205-208 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0743; Styrsky, J., & Eubanks, M. (2007). Ecological consequences of interactions between ants and honeydew-producing insects Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274 (1607), 151-164 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3701.

10Pohl, S., & Foitzik, S. (2011). Slave-making ants prefer larger, better defended host colonies Animal Behaviour, 81 (1), 61-68 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.09.006; Brandt M, Foitzik S, Fischer-Blass B, & Heinze J (2005). The coevolutionary dynamics of obligate ant social parasite systems–between prudence and antagonism. Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 80 (2), 251-267 PMID: 15921051; Hölldobler, B. & Wilson, E.O., 1990. The Ants, Harvard University Press.

11FELLERS, J., & FELLERS, G. (1976). Tool Use in a Social Insect and Its Implications for Competitive Interactions Science, 192 (4234), 70-72 DOI: 10.1126/science.192.4234.70.

12See, e.g., Pierce, J. (1986). A Review of Tool Use in Insects The Florida Entomologist, 69 (1) DOI: 10.2307/3494748.

13Mlot NJ, Tovey CA, & Hu DL (2011). Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (19), 7669-73 PMID: 21518911.

Grandmothers and Menopause in Cetaceans and Humans

As single income families become rarer and aging baby boomers begin to play a greater role in caring for their grandchildren, people have increasingly come to appreciate how much help a doting grandmother can provide. In fact, interest in the helpful role played by the elderly has given rise to the so-called grandmother hypothesis, which posits that women have evolved to live well past their reproductive years because, free from the costs of childbearing, they are able to invest more time into benefiting their grandchildren and other younger family members, raising the odds that their genes will be carried on to future generations.1 While the strength of the evidence for the grandmother hypothesis is still being debated2, it’s certainly got some intuitive appeal (especially, perhaps, to harried young parents).

What’s also quite fascinating is that the long post-reproductive life of human females – up to a third of a woman’s lifespan or more – is extremely rare: menopause appears to be unique to humans and (somewhat controversially) certain other great apes, as well as to certain toothed whales, including short-finned pilot whales and killer whales. (It’s possible that other species of cetacean may undergo menopause, but this hasn’t been established yet; also, more to come about elderly elephant matriarchs in a later post…)

To grandmother's house I go! (Photo: © Alice MacKay, Cascadia Research)

So, why is post-reproductive life is so rare? If the grandmother hypothesis applies to great apes and toothed whales, why isn’t it at work with other long-lived animals who live in socially-cooperative societies? Also, if evolution favors post-reproductive life because it provides distinct social advantages, why did menopause evolve in humans and toothed whales, given the very different social structures of humans and whales?

A fascinating study published last year in Proceedings of the Royal Society B3 by Rufus Johnstone of the University of Cambridge and Michael Cant of the University of Exeter may offer plausible answers to these questions.

In a nutshell, they found that, although humans, pilot whales and killer whales have quite different social systems, in each case older females become, on average, more genetically related to those with whom they associate. By contrast, in most other long-lived complex mammal societies, older females become increasingly less related to those in their local groups as they age.

Did grandma pinch you on the cheek too? (photo credit: NOAA)

The researchers began by developing a mathematical model that would allow them to draw general conclusions about age-related changes in the genetic relatedness of long-lived social animals as individual group members disperse, die and are replaced over time. (For those interested in such things, they based their approach on the “infinite island” model that is commonly used in considering the process of gene flow among a set of subpopulations.)

With their model in hand, the researchers analyzed three relevant social scenarios:

  1. Males Move On. In the large majority of social animal societies, males tend to move on as they mature, ultimately mating with unrelated females they find within new social groups. In this type of society, the researchers’ model determined that, over time, an older female will become less related to her group mates as she ages. She starts out in a highly related group that includes her father, but over time her older male relatives die, and her sons, and the sons of her relatives, leave the group and are replaced by unrelated males from other groups. Her average genetic relationship to the females in the group doesn’t change much, but since her relatedness to local males declines, overall her genetic connection to the group lessens as she gets older.
  2. Females Move On. Conversely, evidence suggests that during the course of human evolution, women were the ones that were more likely to move on to start families in new environments. (In support of this proposition, Johnstone and Cant cite the behavior of other great apes, human DNA variation patterns, and social patterns among human forager societies, evidence they concede is “far from conclusive.”) In this type of society, where males stay at home and females disperse, an older female tends to become more related to her fellow group members over time. She begins her reproductive life in new surroundings where she has few genetic ties to those around her, but as she produces sons who are likely to remain in the group, her relatedness to local males builds up over time. Again, because the degree of her relatedness to other females stays fairly constant – she starts out with little relation to the females in her new group and this doesn’t change much as her daughters leave and are replaced by new unrelated females – her overall genetic connection to the group increases as she ages.
  3. Males and Females Stay Put, But Mating Occurs Between Different Groups. In the resident killer whale and pilot whale societies studied, males and females stay with their natal groups for life, but mating occurs non-locally, that is, between females and males from other groups. In this final scenario, even though the social structure is quite different from “female moves on” societies, the results are the same: an older female tends to become more related to her fellow group members over time. A female begins her reproductive life separate from her father and her paternal relatives (who belong to a different group), but as she has male offspring her relatedness to males within her group grows over time. Once again, her relatedness to other females stays more or less constant, meaning that her overall genetic affinity with her group increases as she grows old.

Thus for human and certain whale societies, in contrast to most other social animal groupings, a female’s relatedness to her group increases as she becomes older.

Johnstone and Natal next considered the fitness costs of reproduction. They noted that having children imposes costs on other breeders within one’s group due to increased competition for food, resources and mating opportunities, whereas cessation of reproduction confers a benefit, due to a corresponding reduction in competition. Then, using a using a statistical model involving an “inclusive fitness” approach to generate quantitative results for the three scenarios described above, they reached a not-surprising conclusion: in scenario 1 (males move on), it is less advantageous for older females to “help” younger generations by stopping their own breeding, whereas in scenarios 2 and 3 (the human and toothed whale scenarios), non-breeding “help” is favored by evolution, as it confers advantages on a younger generation that is progressively more related to the older helper.

So there you have it. Does Johnstone and Natal’s analysis sound plausible? It certainly offers a neat way of finding an underlying similarity in great ape and whale societies that may explain menopause and support the grandmother hypothesis in these very distinct groups.

No wonder cetaceans often look like they’re grinning – they’ve been spoiled by their grandmothers!

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ResearchBlogging.org1See, e.g., Lahdenperä, M., Lummaa, V., Helle, S., Tremblay, M., & Russell, A. (2004). Fitness benefits of prolonged post-reproductive lifespan in women Nature, 428 (6979), 178-181 DOI: 10.1038/nature02367; Shanley, D., Sear, R., Mace, R., & Kirkwood, T. (2007). Testing evolutionary theories of menopause Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274 (1628), 2943-2949 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.1028.

2See, e.g., Kachel, A., Premo, L., & Hublin, J. (2010). Grandmothering and natural selection Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278 (1704), 384-391 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1247.

3Johnstone, R., & Cant, M. (2010). The evolution of menopause in cetaceans and humans: the role of demography Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277 (1701), 3765-3771 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.0988.

What’s Up With the Male Dolphins of Shark Bay Who Don’t Use Sponges?

As discussed in detail in a recent AnimalWise post, a group of female bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia has enjoyed quite a bit of attention of late for creatively using marine basket sponges as tools to assist them in rooting out bottom-dwelling fish. While the spotlight has been on the females, not much has been said about the males who (despite growing up fin-to-fin with sisters who learn how to use sponges) generally do not become spongers. The researchers studying the sponging behavior have not explored the lack of male sponging in depth, but have hypothesized that the males may be too focused on establishing and maintaining “alliances” to be able to devote the time and effort necessary to become specialized sponge-using foragers.1

I can't figure out that sponging thing either... (photo credit: Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

So what are these male alliances all about, and why are they so important?

Fortunately, a study published in the August 23, 2011 issue of Biology Letters2 provides some new detail and insight into male bottlenose dolphin alliances in Shark Bay.

In a surprise to most likely no one, the alliances are all about sex – maximizing a male’s chances of being able to mate. What is surprising, however, is the level of complexity of these male relationships.

Only humans and Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins are known to have multiple-level male alliances within a social network.

The researchers already knew that the Shark Bay males formed two distinct levels of alliance: first-order groupings of three (or, less frequently, two) males who cooperate to establish and maintain “consortships” with females, and second-order alliances comprised of two or more primary groups who band together to take females from other alliances and/or to defend against such “theft” attempts.

In itself, this degree of cooperation is notable, as alliances and coalitions within social groups are considered to be a hallmark of social complexity (for a posting on female elephant social networks, see here, and for hyena social dynamics, see here). The researchers put it succinctly: “Only humans and Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins are known to have multiple-level male alliances within a social network.” (AnimalWise aside: why are males less apt to have multi-tier social networks than females? Ok, perhaps I don’t need to ask….)

Are you in my second-order alliance? This is all so complicated! (photo credit: Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

In this most recent study, the research team describes a Shark Bay male dolphin society that is even more complex than previously reported – one that actually has three levels of nested alliances among males.

The researchers spent over five years observing 121 frequently-seen males in over 500 consortships, concluding that amicable low-level associations (i.e., third-order alliances) were regularly occurring between specific second-order alliances and trios or other second-order alliances. The researchers further noted that fights involving multiple groups of males suggested that the third-order alliances, like the second-order ones, are employed in conflicts over females, as higher-order alliances could be useful if second-order partners were not around when rivals appeared.

A few other interesting research findings include:

  • There was a nearly continuous range in the size of second-order alliances, which had between six and 14 members.
  • There did not appear to be a relationship between the size of the second-order alliances and how stable (long-lasting) their component first-order trios were.
  • Most of the males participated in second-order alliances, but a subset of five trios did not. Of these five trios, four were comprised of older males whose prior second-order alliance partners had disappeared over time. The researchers surmised that these particular dolphins may have participated in third-order alliances because they were particularly in need of assistance in protecting and obtaining females.
  • Most of the first-order trios associated with only one second-order alliance, but a small subset (around 3%) associated with more than one second-order alliance.

So, to sum up, while (a subset of about 1/11 of) the female bottlenoses of Shark Bay are engaging in specialized tool use with marine sponges, the males are absorbed in complex Machiavellian political relationships and sexual maneuvering. Hmm, sounds a bit familiar.

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1Mann, J., Sargeant, B., Watson-Capps, J., Gibson, Q., Heithaus, M., Connor, R., & Patterson, E. (2008). Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges? PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003868.

2Connor, R., Watson-Capps, J., Sherwin, W., & Krutzen, M. (2010). A new level of complexity in the male alliance networks of Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) Biology Letters, 7 (4), 623-626 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0852.

The Rational Ant

In a recent post I described how pigeons are better than humans at solving the Monty Hall problem and might therefore prove to be formidable competitors on Let’s Make a Deal. In this post, I have some good news and some bad news for those of you readers who are human (I make no assumptions in this blog). The good news is that I have yet to see any research showing that pigeons can triumph over humans at Jeopardy. The bad news is that the top two winners on Let’s Make a Deal could well end up being a pigeon and an ant, leaving the human contestants to go home with nothing more than an electronic version of the game (and perhaps a goat or two).

An article in ScienceNOW1 provides the backdrop:

Ants enjoying a nectar lunch on a sunny day (photo: Wikipedia)

Consider the following scenario: You want to buy a house with a big kitchen and a big yard, but there are only two homes on the market–one with a big kitchen and a small yard and the other with a small kitchen and a big yard. Studies show you’d be about 50% likely to choose either house–and either one would be a rational choice. But now, a new home comes on the market, this one with a large kitchen and no yard. This time, studies show, you’ll make an irrational decision: Even though nothing has changed with the first two houses, you’ll now favor the house with the big kitchen and small yard over the one with the small kitchen and big yard. Overall, scientists have found, people and other animals will often change their original preferences when presented with a third choice.

Not so with ants. These insects also shop for homes but not quite in the way that humans do. Solitary worker ants spread out, looking for two main features: a small entrance and a dark cavity. If an ant finds an outstanding hole–such as the inside of an acorn or a rock crevice–it recruits another scout to check it out. As more scouts like the site, the number of workers in the new hole grows. Once the crowd reaches a critical mass, the ants race back to the old nest and start carrying the queen and larvae to move the entire colony.

The article goes on to describe some research on ant decision-making conducted by Stephen Pratt, an Arizona State University behavioral ecologist, and Susan Edwards, of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. In this research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences2, Pratt and Edwards designed a series of possible nests for 26 ant colonies:

The duo cut rectangular holes in balsa wood and covered them with glass microscope slides. The researchers then drilled holes of various sizes into the glass slides and slipped plastic light filters under the glass to vary the features ants care about most. At first, the colonies only had two options, A and B. A was dark but had a large opening, whereas B was bright with a small opening. As with humans, the ants preferred both options equally: The researchers found no difference between the number of colonies that picked A versus B.

Then the scientists added a third option, called a decoy, that was similar to either A or B in one characteristic but clearly worse than both in the other (a very bright nest with a small opening, for example). Unlike humans, the ants were not tricked by the decoy, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Although a few colonies picked the third nest, the other colonies did not start favoring A or B and still split evenly between the two.

Ants can make better decisions because they take advantage of collective wisdom and do not “overthink” their options the way humans are prone to do. As Pratt noted in an article published in PhysOrg.com3, “Typically we think having many individual options, strategies and approaches are beneficial, but irrational errors are more likely to arise when individuals make direct comparisons among options.”

This research is particularly fascinating in that it poses a direct challenge to our core belief that we will always enjoy a large advantage over other animals when there is an intellectual way to solve a problem: sure, animals may have highly-evolved senses of smell, they may be fast, they may have impressive reflexes and their instincts may be powerful, but where we humans are able to harness our large brains, we will inevitably prevail.

In fact, though, we should hold off before patting ourselves on the back. As this (and other) research shows, we suffer from biases and flaws in the way we approach thought problems that can lead to irrational decisions and that can even put us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis other animals, including the birds and the ants.

Something to think about.

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1ScienceNOW, “Can’t Decide? Ask an Ant,” July 22, 2009.

2Edwards SC, Pratt SC. Rationality in collective decision-making by ant colonies. Proc Biol Sci. 2009 October 22; 276(1673): 3655–3661, published online 2009 July 22 (doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0981).

3PhysOrg.com, “Ants more rational than humans,” July 24, 2009.

Fishing Buddies

We are all familiar with talented sports teams that underachieve because, despite the individual abilities of their players, they’ve been unable to “pull together” and coordinate their efforts effectively. Because teamwork requires cooperation, communication, and complex social interaction, we typically bring in outside coaches to create an environment that allows teamwork to develop, and we reserve our highest praise (and compensation) for those rare players who have the gift of making others better while being successful themselves (just ask Magic Johnson and Larry Bird).

With that in mind, you may be surprised to learn that a couple of the world’s most accomplished team players can be found not on the playing field or in the arena, but under the sea, and that they are members of different species of fish.

Grouper (from Wikipedia; photo credit: Jon Hanson)

In recent research published in PLoS Biology1, scientists reported on a highly coordinated and communicative hunting partnership between the grouper and the giant moray eel, which they observed in the coral reefs of the Red Sea. Together, the two fish make an extremely complementary and formidable hunting team.

Groupers, large predatory reef fish, are daytime hunters, while morays usually hunt at nght and rest in crevices during the day. Groupers typically hunt in open water near reefs and have trouble catching fish that hide in the holes and crevices that they find in the coral. Moray eels, on the other hand, sneak around reef crevices and attempt corner prey in holes, but have trouble catching fish in open water.

Giant Moray Eel (from Wikipedia; photo credit: Albert Kok)

As the research report observed: “The hunting strategies of the two predators are therefore complementary, and a coordinated hunt between individuals of the two species confronts prey with a multipredator attack that is difficult to avoid; prey are not safe in open water because of the grouper hunting strategy but cannot hide in crevices because of the moray’s mode of attack.”

The researchers found that hungry groupers would actively seek out their moray eel fishing partners in their crevices and shake their heads rapidly right in the eels’ faces to let them know that it was time to go for a hunt. Here’s a video of a grouper letting an eel know that it is time to eat.

The morays would then leave their hiding holes and swim off in search of food with the groupers. Here’s a video of the hunting twosome happily swimming off together for dinner.

Moreover, the pair would cooperate as they hunted. In some cases, for instance, a grouper would remain directly above a crevice where prey was hiding, perform “headstands” and shake its head to guide the moray eel to the hidden prey’s location.

The researchers noted that, when the two fish worked together as a team, the groupers caught five times as many fish as they did separately, and the moray eels caught almost twice as many fish as the groupers. (Because the morays normally hunt at night, the researchers didn’t observe them catching any fish separately, so they were not able to draw any conclusions regarding how their partnership with the groupers changed their hunting efficiency.)

This type of inter-species coordinated hunting with differentiated roles is extremely rare and had never been seen before in fish. If you think about it, this is pretty complex and advanced behavior, as the individuals must perform specific actions and play specific roles, knowing that their counterparts are doing the same. The groupers, with their intentional signaling to call their moray partners to the hunt and to direct them to prey, demonstrate particularly sophisticated, cognitively advanced behavior.

So, forget about your local sports franchise; if you want to see some especially impressive teamwork, you should put on your wetsuit and let some reef fish show you how it’s done.

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1Bshary R, Hohner A, Ait-el-Djoudi K, Fricke H. Interspecific Communicative and Coordinated Hunting between Groupers and Giant Moray Eels in the Red Sea. PLoS Biol 2006 4(12): e431. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040431.

Elephant Negotiations

What better way to kick off a blog about animal wisdom than with a shout out to the ponderous and pulchritudinous pachyderm? Rest assured that there will be many more posts about these lovably large animals, but for now I wanted to call attention to a recent article in the UK Daily Mailthat provides some fascinating color regarding elephants’ complex social systems.

African Elephants (photo credit: World Wildlife Federation)

The article, reporting on nearly 40 years of continuous study by Cynthia Moss and her team of researchers at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, describes the many ways in which elephants engage in sophisticated communications through body language and sound. Read the article and check out the handy graphics for insight into how elephants flirt (hey, big guy…), greet each other by entwining trunks, invite others to play, show empathy by wincing at each other’s pain, and even squabble over directions:

Negotiations over directions often begin with a common signal known as the ‘let’s go’ rumble. The elephants then engage in lengthy exchanges until a consensus is reached and the herd moves off in the chosen direction. Phyllis Lee, of Stirling University, Scotland – co-editor of The Amboseli Elephants, a new book revealing the research – said elephants can take up to an hour discussing which way to go. ‘It’s wonderful to watch and a real process of negotiation,’ she said.

The one quibble I have with the article is its assertion that the elephants’ social system is “remarkably similar to that of humans.” As we sit here in California facing another budgetary impasse and look forward to similar fun to be had in Washington, D.C., this summer, it seems to me that we should invite in the elephants to show us humans a “real process of negotiation” that leads to a consensus in an hour. Of course, the politicians might then need to haul out their shovels and spend another hour or so cleaning up, but that’s another story.

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1The Mail Online, “Not such a Dumbo: How elephants flirt, argue and have feelings just like humans,” June 6, 2011.

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