Friday, July 08, 2011

Carnivorous Elk and Bipolar Bears?

I've given a lot of thought to 'odd' animal behavior lately, mostly since reading with my students about evidence of intelligence in many animals, but I've always been impressed by the apparently high intelligence of dolphins, and I've since learned that elephants have even larger, more complex brains than dolphins and apes, second only to human brains in complexity -- and a great deal larger!

When animals do things out of character, I therefore take notice -- such as with this 'carnivorous' elk:

That marmot looks to be a goner! So do these two chained huskies as that polar bear approaches:

But there's more going on than meets the eye, for that enormous elk was in fact rescuing the tiny marmot:
Keepers at Pocatello Zoo, Idaho, were worried when they noticed Shooter, a four-year-old elk, acting strangely at his water trough.

Baffled, they watched as the animal -- who is so massive some keepers are afraid to even enter his enclosure -- tried to dip his hooves into his drinking trough, before attempting to dunk his whole head in the water.

But they were amazed as 10ft tall Shooter lifted his head from the trough clutching a tiny marmot -- a kind of large squirrel -- between his jaws.

The gentle giant placed the hapless rodent down and nudged it with his hoof, as if checking it for signs of life, before calmly watching it scamper off into the bushes. ("Elk and safety: Zookeepers stunned as moose rescues drowning marmot from watery death," Daily Mail Online, July 1, 2011 [both photos supplied by Caters News Agency])
The marmot is safely on dry land again:

And as for that 'hungry' polar bear spoiling for a fight, well, he just wanted a hug:
They growled and bared their teeth. But then, instead of fighting, the enemies became firm friends.

First the bear gently nuzzled the husky's neck. The dog responded by rising on its hind legs to lick the bear's face. (Barry Wigmore, "Killer polar bear? I'm just a big teddy, really!" Daily Mail Online, March 31, 2008 [both photos by Norbert Rosing for National Geographic])
Now, that's unexpected!

These sorts of behavior -- cross-species rescue and play, respectively -- suggest that some animals are a lot more humanlike than we usually think. Diane Ackerman, writing "The Lonely Polar Bear" for the New York Times (July 2, 2011), would agree:
My heart goes out to Gus, the famously neurotic polar bear in the Central Park Zoo, who used to swim endless laps around his pool. He'd dive to the bottom in a froth of bubbles, surge across and then surface like a bear obsessed. He'd backstroke to the other side, and with great paws splashing, dive down to the bottom and circle around again. Some wags called him the "bipolar bear," but most zoo-goers sensed that he felt bored, pent-up, out of his element and depressed.

A high-profile animal psychologist, called in by zoo officials, began treating Gus in 1994 with toys, games, more challenging mealtimes and a better designed habitat. Soon Gus seemed like his old self again, lounging and playing with his longtime companion, Ida.

But when Ida died recently from liver disease at the age of 25, Gus grew listless, slouching around his habitat and swimming little, obviously confused and greatly disturbed by her disappearance . . . .

People speak of Gus's grief as if it were anomalous. But what if it's just part of a large suite of ancient urges and instincts we share with hordes of other animals?

A 2005 study of elephant grief, reported in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, confirmed what experts have long sworn, that elephants pay homage to their fallen, visiting the remains of even long-dead relatives, and gently turning over the bleached bones with trunk or foot. Biologists tell of gorillas banging their chests with yowls of anguish during a wake for a fallen friend, of sea lions wailing when their babies have been mutilated by killer whales, of grief-stricken monkey mothers carrying dead infants around for days, of geese singing both halves of a duet when their partners have died.
That fact about geese is still surprising to me, but less so than it would have been some months back.

Interestingly, however, we're different in a significant way from the mammal closest to us genetically, the chimpanzee, as Natalie Angier tells us in "Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive," New York Times (July 4, 2011):
Darwinian-minded analysts argue that Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match. As Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has pointed out, you will never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together. The advent of agriculture and settled life may have thrown a few feudal monkeys and monarchs into the mix, but evolutionary theorists say our basic egalitarian leanings remain. . . .

Our rise to global dominance began, paradoxically enough, when we set rigid dominance hierarchies aside. "In a typical primate group, the toughest individuals can have their way and dominate everybody else in the group," said Dr. Wilson. "Chimps are very smart, but their intelligence is predicated on distrust."
I wonder if that's also true of bonobo chimpanzees. It's not true of elephants, which are very trusting of one another, and astonishingly cooperative, though we've already seen that elephants are second only to humans in brain complexity. But that alone is insufficient as explanation, and I wonder what accounts for the difference between elephants and chimps, for both have complex brains and live in groups. Where does cooperation come from? But that question aside, the human character of so many animals strikes me ever more clearly the more I look.

Fascinated, I keep looking . . .

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At 7:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The DM is a surprisingly good source of photo stories like the Elk rescuing the marmot from drowning in the trough. Large, high-resolution photos that the reader can view simply by scrolling down, rather than endlessly clicking a button to move to the next slide. Great videos from around the world, too, with ample coverage of the US that sometimes brings out snide remarks in the comment section from readers who wonder whether DM is a UK paper. The videos of the dust storm that rolled over Phoenix on Tuesday were stunning.


At 7:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now why did I capitalize "elk"?

At 7:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Why? Because it's so damn big.

I often check the Daily Mail, but I suppose that I ought to have hat-tipped you on the marmot story . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:15 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

According to many ancient writers, the elephants and other animals had religious feelings too.

As for elephants, a documentary some years ago showed them honoring the remains of their dead.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm currently very impressed by elephants. They must be doing things with their massive, complex brains. Surely that brainpower isn't all being used up in controlling their great big bodies.

Jeffery Hodges

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