Oneself and others

Like human culture, animal culture relies on relationships with others: for attracting a mate, reproduction, teaching, providing protection and finding food. They are ambivalent relationshipswoven from cooperation and rivalry. Here are a few probative examples.

Friendship among chimpanzees. © Chris Herzfeld
Friendship among chimpanzees. © Chris Herzfeld
Two young male elephant seals come to blows in front of a colony of king penguins at Ratmanoff (Kerguelen Island) in the southern Indian Ocean.© CNRS Photothèque/CEBC/Christophe Guinet
Two young male elephant seals come to blows in front of a colony of king penguins at Ratmanoff (Kerguelen Island) in the southern Indian Ocean.
© CNRS Photothèque/CEBC/Christophe Guinet
The Muscicapa aëdon flycatcher (Gabon). Both parents of the species feed the young – here it is the female.© CNRS Photothèque/Alain R. Devez
The Muscicapa aëdon flycatcher (Gabon). Both parents of the species feed the young – here it is the female.
© CNRS Photothèque/Alain R. Devez

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously coined the maxim "Hell is other people", although the very fact of belonging to the human race made him a social animal. In a way, all other living beings could be seen as hell because others are always rivals. First and foremost they compete for food: our fellow creatures share the same diet as ourselves and, if food becomes scarce, they can endanger our lives. They are also potential sexual rivals and, in some cases, potential predators too. Fortunately, Sartre's maxim reflects only part of the truth. Others are essential for reproduction. If they are cooperative, they can also prove to be valuable allies: for protection, building shelter, detecting danger, finding food resources... and even entertainment. In short, our fellow creatures are a curious mix of heaven and hell.

This duality is an integral part of the animal condition. It explains why there are few truly solitary individuals, whatever their species or distinctive characteristics because, at the very least, every individual is obliged to interact with reproductive partners. That being said, relationships are rarely limited only to reproduction. Many animals also have relationships with their siblings, and possibly also their parents, their group, large or small, as well as the fellow creatures they meet. The fact is that interaction always entails communication.

Power of seduction

In the universal sphere of reproduction, animal communication has achieved the height of sophistication. Lepidopterans are endowed with a ‘seventh sense' that enables them to detect a mate as far away as 8 kilometres.

Sexual communication, which is often intrinsically chemical, has been enriched with auditory components in many insects and birds, where song plays a decisive role. Visual communication is also important, as testified by the blaze of markings, colours, plumage and other aesthetic features that can be seen across the animal kingdom. Not to mention tactile communication. According to biologist Stéphane Tanzarella in the case of Amaurobius ferox spiders, "the male distinguishes itself from prey by drumming on the female's web with its maxillipeds. It creates a frequency of 4 Hz for a few seconds and then uses its abdomen to deliver a vibration of 30 to 100 Hz."(1) This prevents it from being devoured by the female, provided that it can maintain this rhythm throughout the mating process (one moment of distraction and the female's predatory instinct will regain the upper hand, to the male's cost). For many years now, astonishingly complex behavioural codes have also been observed among the most evolved animal species, as witnessed in the elaborate displays, synchronised dances and gift-giving ceremonies of certain birds.

Parental responsibility

The parent-child relationship undoubtedly has the next-largest communication and behavioural repertoire, after the sexual relationship Examples can even be found in invertebrates. For example, aphids and spiders will sometimes defend their offspring, transport them from one place to another and feed them. In many cases this is a fairly basic reflex action, triggered by the general appearance, odour or sounds emitted by their young. In fact, substitution of offspring goes unnoticed by most birds, not least the hen, which will ‘rear' any chick as her own without batting an eyelid, or the cuckoo fledgling which is adopted by substitute parents that are generally even smaller than their adoptive newborn.

Alex Thornton, a researcher at the Depart - ment of Zoology of the University of Cambridge (UK) provides us with another astonishing example. He has shown that a real training process exists among meerkats (or suricates), small African social mammals from the mongoose family. Meerkats have a highly varied diet that includes dangerous and fast-moving creatures like scorpions. When their offspring are still very young, the parents bring them dead animals to eat. Then, when the young are more agile, the parents give them live scorpions from which they have ripped out the sting. It is only in the final stages of their training that young meerkats are given entire prey with which they are left to cope as best they can. Alex Thornton explains that meerkats have no theory of mind that enables them to imagine what their offspring are capable of doing or understanding. They are merely guided by the type of sound emitted by their young. The shriller cries of the smaller infants lead to the delivery of dead prey. Later, as the sounds drop in pitch, meerkat parents modify the type of food they give their offspring. By playing back tape recordings of cries of the incorrect pitch, researchers succeeded in tricking meerkat parents into feeding their babies with the wrong type of prey.

Group effect

Interactions with others that are neither ascendants, descendants nor partners are still largely a mystery. The dynamic of fish shoals - some of which can exceed one kilometre in width and include thousands of individuals - is still poorly understood. The assumption is that this group formation is intended to confuse or even threaten a predator, thereby deterring it from attacking. So whenever a hazard arises, the shoal members close ranks synchronically to create a denser mass. Although each fish has contact only with the handful of individuals in its immediate vicinity, this does not prevent the signals from being transmitted from neighbour to neighbour with astonishing speed. Despite having a very rudimentary brain and a narrow range of stereotyped behaviour, fish have managed to use the ‘group effect' to develop complex and highly adapted behaviour patterns.

Many animals undergo alternate gregarious and territorial phases. This is true of birds like starlings, which form impressively large groups in winter and execute fascinating displays of formation flying. Every evening the flock of birds can be seen, in turns, to scatter, stretch out, then resume a compact pattern - as the liking of the group members takes them - whilst remaining cohesive at all times. Despite this, when the breeding season arrives a few weeks later, two members of the same group will fight bitterly for possession of a few square metres of territory.

More complex still are the pack-hunting mechanisms of certain predators like lions or wolves. Pack hunting relies on a division of labour between the fast-moving and boisterous ‘hunters' that chase down the prey and the silent ‘killers' that lie in ambush to attack it. Although very little is yet known about how the division of labour and synchronisation of movements are organised, they clearly form part of sophisticated communication systems.

Subtleties of primates

Then there are the primates, whose subtle social hierarchies and interactions continue to fascinate researchers. One of the most renowned primatologists, Dutchman Frans de Waal, who is currently working at Atlanta's Emory University (USA), has written a number of works (2), complete with a wealth of fascinating details.

He explains that in chimpanzees, dominance does not rely solely on physical strength. Instead, the main determining factor is the leader's ability to secure sufficient allies (including from among the ranks of physically weaker females), to guarantee support when he comes into conflict with rivals. Frans de Waal describes radical switches in allegiance that result in transferral of power to the ruler's former lieutenants. He claims that it is easy to single out the ‘politicians' in the group, which are capable of changing allegiance quickly when the time is right, whereas other members stay faithful to the same fellow creatures as long as they live. As we might have guessed, the human race has invented nothing new...

Yves Sciama

  1. Stéphane Tanzarella, Perception et communication chez les animals, De Boeck Université, 2005.
  2. Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee politics: power and sex among apes, John Hopkins University Press, 2000. Frans de Waal, Peter L. Tyack, Animal social complexity: intelligence, culture, and individualized societies, Harvard University Press, 2003.


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