I was recently asked how YouTube was affecting our attitudes to other species. I didn’t know of any research on the topic, so I put a call out for information on the anthrozoology Facebook page. Five minutes later, Julie Hecht, co-author of one of my favorite blogs Do You Believe in Dog sent me this article from the journal Animal Behaviour by the ethologist Ximena Nelson and the anthropologist Natasha Fijn. While it did not address the question of how YouTube affects our relationships with other species, the authors made a convincing case that YouTube clips offer insights into rare but scientifically significant forms of animal behavior.
YouTube animal clips tend to fall into three categories. The largest category consists of videos taken on smart phones by “citizen scientists” – everyday people who happen to be at the right place at the right time. The second are videos by animal behaviorists which are appended to scientific journal articles, and the third category includes segments of natural history TV documentaries. Here are a few of my favorite examples of each of these categories.
Citizen Scientist Videos
Snowball, the Dancing Cockatiel. I still get a kick out of this video which knocked me out when I first saw it a couple of years ago. The idea that animals have the capacity to dance also attracted
the attention of researchers at the University of California San Diego who conducted an experiment showing that Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, was indeed synchronizing his head bobs and foot movements to the music of the Backstreet Boys. Here is the research report.
The Snowboarding Crow. Don’t believe that birds play? Just take a look at this clip of a Russian crow who figured out how to use a jar lid as a snowboard.
Dog and Deer Play Chase. In a previous Psychology Today post (here) I argued that in nature, non-human animals don’t keep pets. There are, however, lots of examples of animals of different species playing together. Indeed, Nelson and Fijn list 40 YouTube clips depicting dogs playing with creatures ranging from parrots to bears and dolphins. This video of a black Lab playing chase with a young deer is a good example of this genre.
Small Horse with Big Balls. As this clip illustrates, animals also play with inanimate objects. According to Nelson and Fijn, object play YouTube videos typically feature horses who seem to like nothing better than kicking around giant balls. (This video has the added benefit of a sound track by Dwight Yokum.)
Lizard Is Wizard At Video Games. Species differ in their ability to attend to videos. In part, this is due to their capacity to process flickering images. In contrast to dogs, reptiles and cats are particularly adept at perceiving and responding to iPad images. This bearded dragon could probably beat me at Ant Crusher, a video game. (Notice how it avoids the fish.) And Friskies, the pet food company, has developed a series of iPad games just for cats (here).
Videos Posted By Scientists
This Chimp Is Smarter Than You Are. Japanese scientists used this video as proof of the stunning ability of a chimpanzee at the University of Kyoto Primate Research Center named Ayumu to remember in order, sequences numbers which are flashed on the screen for less than a second. (Here is the article in Current Biology describing the experiment and the results.
Kinky Sex in Fruit Bats. This clip is one of my favority examples of YouTube as a vehicle for the
dissemination of scientific results. It is a video that accompanied this article in PLOS titled “Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time.” The 18 second clip shows the female licking the male’s genitals while they are hanging upside down and copulating. As I warn the students in my human sexuality class, “Don’t try this at home.”
YouTube Excerpts from Natural History Documentaries
These Orcas Make Waves. This video is from the TV nature series Frozen Planet. It depicts a pod of orcas who coordinate their movements to generate waves big enough to knock a hapless seal off an ice floe. Warning: The clip does not end well. It’s three minutes of Greek tragedy.
Baboons Kidnap Puppies. While I find the orca video convincing, I am skeptical about this excerpt from a British natural history film which claims that a troop of baboons living in a Saudi Arabian garbage dump kidnap puppies and keep them as pets. I explain why I question the veracity of the video in this previous post. (I include this clip in my list of ten important videos to illustrate a point made by Nelson and Jijn -- you cannot always take YouTube videos at face value.)
Just Because They Are So Cute. Hats’ off to the citizen scientist who took this video of a kitten and its cockatoo pal giving each other a gentle massage. I’m not sure about its scientific importance, but it is really cute. When I sent the clip to Patricia Anderson, an anthrozoologist and parrot expert, she wrote, “I try to discourage any feline-avian interactions like this because cats transmit a bacterium that is fatal to birds called Pasteurella. These owners are asking for trouble.” Bummer.
So, if you are interested in animals and have a smart phone, YouTube could be your entrée into the ranks of citizen scientists. Who knows, your next video clip could be cited in the pages of Animal Behaviour or Current Biology.
Hal Herzog is Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University and author of Some We Love, So We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.