Animal Emotions

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Why Dolphins Wear Sponges, Evolution At Work, and a Seriously Misinformed Curmudgeon

The importance of deep ethology and deep ecology.

More than twenty-five years ago researchers in Shark Bay, Australia noticed that spotted dolphins fitted a marine basket sponge over their beak to protect it when they hunted fish living among rocks and broken chunks of coral. They wondered why they did this when they could easily hunt fish in the open sea. Now we know why. It turns out that bottom-dwelling fish are more nutritious and are more difficult for the dolphins to find using echolocation or biosonar to locate objects in their environment. So, the dolphins have to go to where the fish are and that can be risky. Such "sponging" behavior, shown mainly by females probably because they have to spend 4-5 years raising a calf, shows just how clever and innovative dolphins are. Many animals use tools to get food especially when there's a risk involved. When dolphins choose to go for deep-living fish they also avoid competition with local commercial fisherhumans. It's a win-win situation for all.

Another recent story is of great interest because it shows just how invasive big-brained, big-footed, arrogant, and invasive mammals can be. One doesn't have to go to Africa or other faraway places to study evolution. We can do it in our own backyard or parks. We clearly alter the behavior, physiology, and genetics of a wide variety of urban species and also strongly influence biodiversity. To quote from this article: "White-footed mice, stranded on isolated urban islands, are evolving to adapt to urban stress. Fish in the Hudson have evolved to cope with poisons in the water. Native ants find refuge in the median strips on Broadway. And more familiar urban organisms, like bedbugs, rats and bacteria, also mutate and change in response to the pressures of the metropolis. In short, the process of evolution is responding to New York and other cities the way it has responded to countless environmental changes over the past few billion years. Life adapts." Mice in New York City show mutations in more than 1000 genes.

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Clearly, we are a dominant force in nature. And, as we learn more and more about the amazing lives of other animals including their cognitive and emotional capacities, we can learn more about what they want and need. We also learn that other animals are markedly similar to us and that there are distinct differences depending on what individuals need to do to be "card-carrying" members of their species. Thus, a recent and thoroughly uninformed review of some new movies caught my eye. To quote from this essay: "Consciousness gives human behaviour a character of its own, investing it with forethought, awareness of consequence and therefore moral choice. Animals are innocent of such things. A self-sacrificial octopus is therefore no more worthy of applause than a cat who tortures mice is worthy of blame." How wrong this is.

But there's more: "We're asked to believe that we and our furred and feathered siblings are conjoined inalienably in a grand chain of being. The failure of any link is supposed to threaten our survival. Unfortunately, this is untrue. Of all the species that have ever existed, 99.9% have already become extinct. Life has gone on, and the harsh truth is that we could manage without pandas and orangutans." Well, perhaps this reviewer can, but I know that many others, including myself, like to know that pandas, orangutans, and other animals are able to survive and thrive it in a human-dominated world. It's worth a few minutes to look at the comments to this utterly uninformed diatribe.

Solid scientific research shows clearly that we are all conjoined in magnificent and fragile webs of nature and the best biologists in the world agree that our planet is gravely wounded and in dire need of healing because of a failure to recognize these deep and reciprocal interconnections. We can look to "deep ethology" (see also) and "deep ecology" to help us along. It's not merely anthropomorphic sentimentality that is responsible for widespread concern about the unprecedented loss of global biodiversity and the well-being of other animals.

Other animals depend on our goodwill and if one chooses to use cross-species similarity as the reason to do something for the good of the planet she or he is practicing good biology. It isn't "spurious conservation propaganda". Of course, other animals deserve better just because they exist regardless of how similar they are to us.

 

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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