August (published; study received in 2011). Thailand: Dr. Michael Gumert, of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, led a study that found that when human developments disrupt the habitats of tool-using animals, it can make it hard for the animals to keep that tradition. Some monkeys (macaques) in Thailand use stones to break open shells, but humans are making it too hard for the macaques to get to the beaches. The macaques aren't dying out, but they're using tools much less.
Michael D. Gumerta, Yuzuru Hamadaa, and Suchinda Malaivijitnond. "Human activity negatively affects stone tool-using Burmese long-tailed macaques Macaca fascicularis aurea in Laem Son National Park, Thailand." Oryx (2013) DOI: 10.1017/S0030605312000130 http://journals.cambridge.org/action/
Matt McGrath, "Illegal palm oil developments force monkeys to down tools." 2013-08-16. BBC (online news). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-
Alasdair Wilkins, "We are now accidentally making monkeys dumber." 2013-08-18. io9 (online magazine). http://io9.com/we-are-now-accidentally-
Last August: A new study published in Current Biology examined captive wolves to learn more about what they mean when they howl. Howling communicates information about social status rather than stress. It helps pack leaders stay in touch with their members when separated. Howling is at least somewhat voluntary. See the BBC summary, or the article itself.
Melissa Hogenboom, "Howling wolves gives clue to top dog." 2013-08-22. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-
Francesco Mazzini, Simon W. Townsend, Zsófia Virányi, and Friederike Range. "Wolf Howling Is Mediated by Relationship Quality Rather Than Underlying Emotional Stress." Current Biology 2013-08-22. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.066 http://www.cell.com/current-biology/
July: Wolves had not been seen in the wild in the Netherlands since 1869 (140 years ago). That is, up until last July, when the body of a wild wolf was found. She was a one and a half year old female, who had been in good health before being hit by a car. Researchers confirmed that this wasn't a hoax. They also found signs that might mean other wolves live nearby.
"Wolf found in Netherlands is no joke, scientists say." 2013-08-07. Phys.org. http://phys.org/news/2013-08-wolf-
May: In India, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has banned the exhibition of dolphins, whales, and other cetacean animals in captivity for entertainment. Dolphin parks are unethical and harmful to the cetaceans, and so will will be shut down throughout India. India is the fourth nation to ban the use of captive cetaceans for entertainment. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests now categorized cetaceans as “non-human persons.” They argue that cetaceans are highly intelligent, and therefore should not be treated as property, and should have more legal protections and rights than other animals. The category of “non-human persons” has intriguing potential in revising how humans relate to animals.
Vijay Singh, “Dolphins cannot be kept in captivity, says eco ministry.” 2013-05-23. The Times of India. http://articles.timesofindia.
Saroja Coelho, “Dolphins gain unprecedented protection in India.” 2013-05-24. DW (Deutsche Welle). http://www.dw.de/dolphins-gain-
In 2004, archaeologists discovered fossil remains of a one meter tall homid species on the island of Flores. Although now extinct, Homo floresiensis had co-existed with Homo sapiens, and for this reason oral literature survives among the indigenous people of the island, describing Homo floresiensis as a little people who are hairy, uncommunicative, and cave-dwelling. Anthropologists had previously misinterpreted these as folktales about imaginary creatures. Aptly enough, the archaeologists came to nickname Homo floresiensis the “hobbits,” after an uncannily similar humanoid species invented in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels. Tolkien’s hobbits are a hairy, meter-tall people who live in underground houses, negotiate with giant eagles, and trick a fearsome dragon.
According to the Scientific American, latest discovery related to the hobbits regards the fossils of birds from the same cave as the hobbits themselves. This includes a carnivorous stork twice the height of a hobbit, increasing our picture of the contemporary ecology of Flores, which also included Komodo dragons (large carnivorous monitor lizards) and stegodonts (small elephants). The Scientific American article describes the relationship of these creatures in the ecology:
“It’s entirely possible, Meijer says, that dragons, hobbits, storks and vultures were competing for Stegodon parts, although this remains a speculative scenario. (Likewise it is theoretically possible that the giant stork fed on hobbits, but evidence of such an encounter has yet to surface.)”
For those of us who always longed to move into Tolkien’s novels and never come back, please take note that this is what science about the real world sounds like. Isn’t it wonderful?
In fables, animals speak, do clever things, and otherwise behave like humans so that we humans may more easily see ourselves. We take for granted that fables are teaching-tales, not to be taken as literal facts. The animals do fanciful, imaginary things. However, there seem to be some exceptions where the stories could have been based on observation of real animals. There is a curious case with the fable of the Crow and the Pitcher. It’s included in Æsop’s Fables, a collection of ancient Greek moral tales. I’ve been told that an identical story is in the Pancha-Tantra (“Five Chapters”), an Indian book of fables. The fable goes like this:
“A thirsty Crow found a Pitcher with some water in it, but so little was there that, try as she might, she could not reach it with her beak, and it seemed as though she would die of thirst within sight of the remedy. At last she hit upon a clever plan. She began dropping pebbles into the Pitcher, and with each pebble the water rose a little higher until at last it reached the brim, and the knowing bird was enabled to quench her thirst. Necessity is the mother of invention.”1
Is this anthropomorphism (interpreting animals as human-like, as is characteristic of fables), or could this be something that real animals do? Usually the events in fables are clearly imaginary, but this one is to be wondered about. We are beginning to understand the remarkable intelligence found in crows and other members of the corvid family.
A recent study in animal intelligence resembled the fable.2 Four rooks (crow-like corvids) were presented with this scenario: they were each given a vial, containing a little water, with a worm floating on top as bait. Then they were given stones. The clever rooks were able to solve the problem quickly and intuitively. As reported in Science Daily, “Two of the birds were successful on their first try to raise the height of the water to a level at which the worm floating on top could be reached whilst the other two birds needed a second try. […R]ather than attempting to reach the worm after each stone was dropped, they apparently estimated the number needed from the outset and waited until the appropriate water level was reached before dipping their beaks into the tube.” The test was repeated with variations, each revealing a little more of what the rooks understood of what they were doing. For example, rooks showed that they understood that this was a property unique to fluids: they didn’t bother to drop any stones into a vial of sawdust. When given stones of assorted sizes, the rooks “learnt rapidly that the larger stones displaced more water and they were therefore able to obtain the reward more quickly than using small stones.”3 The rooks weren’t trained to do this. They just figured it out.
This isn’t the only tool use expressed by rooks. In another study, rooks learned to bend a piece of wire into a fish-hook shape to pull some food out of a narrow jar. In this study, the researchers said they doubted that rooks use any tools in the wild… in any case, they haven’t been observed doing so. Why not, though? Anyone who has kept parrots knows that the smartest animals love a brain-teaser. A challenge to the wits keeps them entertained. In a healthy ecosystem, an animal’s time isn’t entirely taken up by a grim struggle for survival, and they even find time to play. Tool use is awfully hard to observe in the wild, so much so that we only recently found out that animals used tools at all.
This experiment is one of Aesop’s fables captured in real life, showing that intelligence in animals isn’t necessarily anthropomorphism. (So vain we are to think that intelligence is exclusively human-like!) In my opinion, we should consider the possibility that the fable of the Crow and the Pitcher appeared in both Greece and India not because the story migrated from one place to another, as has been suggested by folklorists. Rather, I fancy that it might have been a real and natural corvid behavior that was independently observed by people in various parts of the world. The memorable sight could have been first told not as a fable, but as an anecdote. “I could learn something from that bird,” they might have said.
- O. Scribner