Baboons Keep Dogs as Pets?

Extract from ‘Animals Like Us’ (National Geographic).

I had a discussion in mind for the video above, but then I found out that Hal Herzog wrote it over a year ago.  Nothing like being behind the times…

If you don’t have time to watch or read either of the above, here’s the gist:  Hamadryas baboons in Saudi Arabia, according to a (now quite old) video, kidnap dogs as puppies and ‘raise them as pets’, treating them as family members and receiving their protection in return.  Hal is (rightly) a little skeptical; although we see, in the video, a male baboon ‘kidnapping’ a puppy, and a couple of adult dogs associating with baboons, we don’t actually see the interim stage (i.e. the ‘raising as pets’ part…)  The counter-argument is that  the male baboons might be ‘playing’ with the puppies (in their own rather rough way) and that the baboon-dog relationship is more mutualistic than hinted in the article; the dogs may not so much be ‘owned’ by the baboons as simply cohabiting with them.   Hamadryas Baboons & Canaan Dog, Saudi Arabia. Image: National Geographic

The clip is from a documentary called ‘Animals Like Us’.  Why the obsession with trying to determine how ‘like us’ other animals are?  For me, the interesting thing about this is the real relationship that exists between the baboons and the dogs, whatever that may be.  Sure, it’s extremely interesting if comparable to the human-pet relationship (which, it should be noted, is hardly set in stone as a concept), but it’s equally interesting if that’s not the case, not least because this may, in fact, be a unique association unlike anything observed elsewhere.

What appears to have gone unnoticed, in the sticky mirk of defining what does and does not constitute pet-keeping, is the fascinating parallel between this association and the afore-blogged research regarding the potential evolution of the domestic dog as a scavenger of the human waste dump.  Could it be that the baboons in this association provide an alternate, current model by which to study coevolution?  Could it be that waste-dumps, where scavenging is abundant, provide a solid ground for cooperative (or at least, barely competitive) interspecies associations?

As Hal notes, this definitely needs more research.  I think that research should take place not to demonstrate how ‘like us’ these ‘unlike us’ species may be, but simply to better understand them for what they are.





The Rescuers – the pitfalls and potential of interspecies altruism

Since I published my blog about morality, I’ve been noticing lots of instances of humans demonstrating our extensive capacity for altruism (re-cap: acts that help others without any significant gain to ourselves).  Particularly, me being me, I’ve noticed how far we extend our altruism – far outside of our own social group, to include strangers, other animals and even ‘concepts’, such as a real concern for ‘nature’ as a whole.Brazilian Beachgoers Rescuing Stranded Dolphins

I’ve also noticed the conflict that this expansion of our empathy seems to initiate.  Not only does it create novel moral dilemmas for us when we project our own moral values onto other species (as discussed in my blog about cats as serial killers), it also produces dilemmas as to the reasonable limits of our altruism.  Without wanting to harp on about the cat issue again, I must highlight this quote from the extensive press relating to it:

“It is not humane treatment of animals to place a killing machine in their midst. Nor is it humane treatment of animals to allow one to live, with the knowledge that others will die painful deaths because of that act.” – Karin Kline, Los Angeles Times

Erm… I have an issue with the second sentence of that statement.  Allow me to jump off my fence and dust the sawdust of my backside for a moment while I point out that, by that logic, we should not be allowing any predators to live, at all, ever.  Such a level of intervention into the lives of others, I think most people would agree, would be a step too far and would likely have disastrous results for the functioning of our planet.

So, although I think most would agree that we can’t reasonably attempt to intervene in every violent and non-altruistic interaction that takes place, we are still left with the question: when is it OK to intervene?

The Crow and I have been watching the BBC’s ‘Africa’ for the past few weeks and in the most recent episode – regarding the future of the continent – a number of these issues were discussed.   Filmmakers and local conservationists watched a baby elephant die of starvation.  They did not intervene.  On another occasion, however, an adult female was stuck in mud unable to free herself; the team pulled her free using heavy machinery.  The explanation was that, during the drought, the team felt that there was nothing they could realistically do for the infant.  There was no food, no water and the calf was too weak to walk.  It was agreed that with so little chance of a positive outcome, it was not worth causing the mother the stress of their intervention; in such a situation the mother is not to know that humans are trying to help.  Their experience of humans may not always have been positive and the first part of a different video below – in which humans did intervene to save an elephant calf stuck in a well – shows how distressing such well intentioned actions can be (don’t worry – on this occasion it has a happy ending):

I don’t know of researchers, conservationists or filmmakers ever intervening in situations where an animal is threatened by a predator – some of the camera operators on ‘Africa’ said how emotionally difficult it had been to watch hundreds of young turtles snatched by crows and eagles.  Here, though, another of our most developed abilities – reasoned thought – often wins out over the initial empathic response.  Most people recognise that life functions on death and consumption, even if (like my mum) you’d rather not watch it happen.

The question of human intervention, then, is normally restricted to events that could be classified as ‘natural spite’ (such as elephants trapped in mud and beached whales) or situations caused by anthropogenic activity (such as dolphins trapped in fishing lines and birds coated in mystery substances probably of human origin).

Photo: Brendan McDermid/ReutersThe big dilemmas arise when we just don’t know what’s happened, or what is the best course of action.  Last week, in New York, a lone dolphin was discovered in the Gowanus Canal.  David Kirby of the Huffington Post has written a really thoughtful article considering both sides of the story, which is worth reading in full.  In short, though, the official advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was to leave the dolphin alone until high tide to give him the chance to ‘rescue’ hisself.  Sadly, he didn’t survive that long.  Although there were many concerned onlookers, restricted access made it very difficult for anyone to reach the stranded dolphin and, even if they had, there was nowhere nearby to take him.  The general desire to help, though, was apparently evident  – the photo I’ve yoinked here (all credit to Brendan McDermid/Reuters) shows a man climbing over the barriers in an attempt to offer the dolphin some comfort.

Although we may be conflicted, I am heartened by the length and breadth of our compassion and altruism towards others, both within and across species.  It makes me hopeful that, by employing both this natural generosity and the aforementioned reason, we’re not entirely doomed to failure as a species and as (self-appointed) stewards of this planet.  Our emotions and reason mean that as well as acting selfishly, which heaven knows we’re also very good at, we also want to help – and for many of us, this extends to a desire to help not just our friends and family but other animals, plants, entire ecosystems or even the whole planet!  So, for me our capacity for altruism is one of the most fortunate of evolution’s branches: imagine what things might be like if we lacked it.

It also seems that this adaptation is not just a one-off.  Evolution is full of patterns and parallel solutions to common problems (I like to thing of parallel evolution as the theory of ‘if it ain’t broke..’)  As I discussed in ‘Moral(animal)ity‘, there is a growing body of data regarding other social animals exhibiting altruism and the foundations of moral systems.  It is hardly surprising, then, that some of the most ‘socially intelligent’ of these animals have also been recorded to generalise their altruistic behaviour to other species, including humans.  It’s the usual suspects – elephants, cetaceans, great apes – with a couple of less-obvious inputs, for example, from pigs and parrots (again, though, both highly social species).

Dolphins, in particular, have been observed on multiple occasions helping both humans and other cetaceans out of sticky situations, suggesting that they either have a particularly strong capacity for altruistic action or that people watch them a lot.  Could be a little from column A, a little from column B…  I’ve put some links to examples below.  Many of these accounts are anecdotal, but they have considerable potential for further study and – as Marc Bekoff says – the plural of anecdote is data.Cookie.  Photo: Wales News Service

Finally, a touching (and local to the Battcave) example of true animal nonhuman altruism, whether intended as such or not; it was reported today that Cookie the Cockatiel woke his owner in the middle of a house fire by repeatedly dive-bombing him, saving the boy’s life.  Tragically, Cookie did not make it out of the fire and has therefore become an ultimate altruist, by giving his life to save another’s.

Aubrey Manning – Animal Magic: Why Species Give Each Other a Helping Hand  /  Dolphins Save Surfer from Becoming Shark Bait  /  Beluga Whale ‘Saves’ Diver  /

(This one is interesting, because I’m not sure whether or not the gorilla intended to save the duckling or was just really interested in it; what do you think?)

Breaking News: Cats are Carnivores

The human-cat relationship appears to have hit a rough patch. Photo Credit: Viriditas

Recent research estimates that free-ranging  cats in the US kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals each year.  A quick Google News search of the term ‘killer cats’ brought back thousands of results, with headlines like, “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think“.  I have to admit, my first reaction was surprise. Not, initially, at the numbers of animals killed, but that this is apparently big news.  I think my favourite quote (from the same article) is this one:

“For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over hundreds of miles, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.”  – Natalie Angier, New York Times

That is the voice of someone who spends a lot of time on the internet and not much time with cats.  Personally, I’m fairly convinced that the domestic cat’s spread and success across the modern world is not borne of their musical talents.  In fact, I would say that their ability to catch and kill a large amount of small, furry creatures has more than a fair bit to do with it.

Apologies for the flippancy; it does seem that the numbers provided by this study are significant, if rather broad (there is a lot of difference between the quoted ranges of 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals).  What struck me about the situation, though, was the irony in the idea that the very feature of cats that may have accelerated their domestication – and consequently their success – is now (in some circles) a reviled and unwanted characteristic.

So how did we get here?  Well, as with dogs, the prevalent theory is that cats were domesticated by assimilation.  They are thought to have first began an association with humans in the near east about 8,500 years ago, possibly drawn to human settlements by the resident populations of commensals – rats, mice etc. – therein.

Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose's cat.  Photo Credit: Larazoni As is well documented, cats enjoyed significant success in ancient Egypt where they had a variety of mostly positive religious associations; as goddesses (the female cats’ obvious promiscuity may have resulted in their being linked with fertility), as incarnations of the sun god Ra (who was believed to do battle on a nightly basis with the serpent of darkness, as cats would have been observed killing snakes) and as unearthly beings in their own right, perhaps due to the fascinating way in which their eyes react to light.

Their elusive and independent qualities, however, have also led cats to be vilified by humans over the course of our unorthodox symbiosis.  In Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries, under the scrutiny of Christianity, cats were associated with heretical sects (who were thought to worship the Devil in feline form) and, later, labelled as the demon familiars of witches; their prevalence as a Hallowe’en costume continues to this day.  Even in the 19th century cats’ reluctance to submit to human will – unlike dogs – was seen as malicious and they were little trusted, particularly by those men who saw them as in unfavourable cahoots with ‘womankind’.  Their reputation for independence, however, also made them popular with the bourgeoisie of 19th century Europe; it is thought this significantly influenced their adoption as house-pets (in contrast to their previous, much wider role as – yep – rodent catchers).  These opposing roles – pets versus pest-control – have caused conflict ever since – I vividly recall waking in the middle of the night to the uneasy scenario of listening to my much-loved cat Jimmy chomping on some unfortunate rodent on my bedroom floor.

There remains today conflict of opinion when it comes to cats.  They have enormous (and slightly disturbing) popularity as memes and in viral videos, most of which have little correspondence with ‘normal’ cat behaviour (although Maru, admittedly, is hilarious).  Yet they are still not generally kept as pets in countries such as South Korea and, even where common, they are notably less popular than dogs – one survey by Stephen Kellert and colleagues found that 17.4% of the sample US population reported disliking cats (as opposed to 2.6% who disliked dogs).  Still, too, they engender hatred: there are several ‘I Hate Cats’ blogs and websites, not to mention a number of books such as the extremely popular 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (which is probably mostly tongue-in-cheek, but rather dark nonetheless).

African Wildcat. Photo Credit: Rute Martins European Wildcat. Photo Credit: Michael Gäbler Behaviourally, cats are talented predators and will hunt a wide range of prey, more varied than their (very close) cousins the European wildcats, though they tend to hunt smaller creatures than wildcats, suggesting they are less skillful hunters.  In addition, even feral domestic cats tend to live in the vicinity of human settlements and obtain more food from scavenging than do wildcats (though wildcats will also scavenge from humans on occasion).  Interestingly, there is continuous debate as to how different three of the small cat ‘species’ actually are, i.e. African and European wildcats and domestic cats.  They interbreed without apparent difficulty.  Their lack of significant genetic or behavioural distinctions (with the exception of hunting habits and human-association) suggests to some that cats have retained – as seems fitting to their independent nature – some distance from their human symbiotes, weaving in and out of various levels and types of association with humans.

Now we have a dilemma, though.  Sometimes, it seems, the last thing a species should do – unless it is human – is be successful.  Domestic cats now inflame debate because they do not fit with certain human ideals of morality, or understand the difference between an endangered robin and an ‘verminous’ rat.  Of course, it’s apparently not the pets that are to blame so much as the feral members of the domestic population, those who – for whatever reason – live outside of human control.

Cats are cats.  They have changed, a bit, as a result of their enduring association with humans, arguably the world’s most destructive species; and they have prospered and found pastures and prey new as a result.  I feel, though, that this new judgement of them is a consequence of our changing, of our inconsistencies, of our transformations and conflicts as to what we value, what is natural and what we should control.

I’m not suggesting that nothing should be done; but I would like to believe that we could approach this dilemma, this domestic with one of our oldest domesticates, in a sensible fashion.  That means not being horrified or outraged that cats kill birds, and lots of them, but accepting it as the way of things and moving forward towards a solution – or a compromise.  It means acknowledging that the biggest threat to endangered species in the States and the rest of the world is still widely understood not to be cats, but (mostly anthropogenic) habitat destruction.  Cats go where humans go; as we have seen, even feral cats remain near human settlements. These studies might provide clues as to how we might best tackle this problem – but please let’s do so with clear thinking and humanity, rather than attributing judgement and blame.
Cat & Mouse. Photo Credit: Lxowle

Let’s not turn cats back into ‘demons’ because we have changed our mind about what’s important; let us consider them as cats and make sure that, in equal part, we continue to consider ourselves.

My academic training means I can’t help but  reference my sources for some of the above information, however loosely!  Some are linked above; those that are not are shown below.  Academic Sources:

Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2000. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  Podberscek, Anthony (2009). Good to pet and eat: the keeping and consuming of dogs and cats in South Korea. Journal of Social Issues 65(3): 615–632  /  Zeder, M. A. 2012. Pathways to Domestication. Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Ed. P. Gepts, T.R. Famula, R.L. Bettinger et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

News Articles (note the emotive titles):

“Killer cats: deadly pets murder nearly 4 billion birds a year”  /  “Cats are ruthless killers: should they be killed?” /  “The Feline Killer that Stalks the Streets” / “Cats Killing Billions of Animals in the US” / “‘Stone-cold serial killers’: Domestic cats slaughter billions upon billions of animals in US every year”


“Competing is intense among humans, and within a group, selfish individuals always win. But in contests between groups, groups of altruists always beat groups of selfish individuals.”
– E. O. Wilson

On Thursday night I started to write a post about eating meat.  It is still saved in my box of drafts, but it will remain there for the time being because I became mired in issues of morality I don’t think my fledgling blog can cope with at this stage.  Nevertheless, ever since that failed effort at writing clearly about a ethically sensitive issue, I have been thinking about why it was such a difficult piece to write.  The answer is two-fold, I think.  Firstly, it seems that morality is an area that demonstrates the extent and depth of variety in human understanding, belief and emotional responses in relation to an issue. Secondly, because we are what we are – a highly social, empathetic species – morality seeps into almost every aspect of our life.

What relevance does this have to a blog that claims to be about interactions between species?  Well, ethics are fairly well inescapable in any field of study (just ask any researcher who’s had to fill in an ‘ethical approval form’).  That aside, I think a consideration of morality in its fundamental form is informative in understanding any interaction, be it between species or just between individuals.

My understanding of ‘morality’ and ‘moral actions’ is that where social groups exist, there also exist rules and norms of social interaction which are built on a combination of emotion, experience and reasoned thought.   I see morality, at its simplest level, as the WD40 of society; we agree not to kill one another and things tend to go more smoothly.  I am not of the philosophy that morality exists outside of the social and interactive sphere (‘transcendentalism’): alone in a desert, it doesn’t matter what your morals are.  Although I am convinced that forms of morality and altruism exist within and between many species, I do not think there is one universal morality.  I will try and explain how I have reached this stance in this blog.

This, then, is where E. O. Wilson’s quote (above) comes into play.  When Wilson speaks of altruism, he is referring to an interaction in which one party ‘self-sacrifices’ for the other’s benefit.  As with all of these terms, there are various types of altruism.  ‘Kin altruism’ is self-sacrifice that benefits a relative, and is relatively common across a variety of species (including eusocial insects such as termites and ants, birds like the chestnut-crowned babbler, meerkats, wolves and, of course, humans)Particularly noteworthy for this blog is ‘reciprocal altruism’: essentially mutualism in the short term.   This is an interaction in which everyone benefits, in the long run, from their sacrifice;  the classic example of this is the principle of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

Mutually Grooming New Forest Ponies.  Photo Credit: Jim ChampionIn some cases, the benefit may not be immediately apparent, but it is normally there somewhere.  There are occasions or associations in which ‘true altruism’ is demonstrated – self-sacrifice with no benefit, or even negative consequences, for the altruist.  This is fairly rare, however, even in the highly morally-conscious human (the Friends episode, “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” is a nice demonstration of how hard it is to find a truly selfless act).

Essentially, altruism is rarely advantageous in an individualistic or competitive society; if everyone is out for themselves except you, you will lose out.  Because the natural world is so often seen as “red in tooth and claw” (thanks for that one, Tennyson), it has become ‘common knowledge’ that selfishness and competitive success is the key to evolution.  Indeed, this often holds true; it is clear that, for example, the winning male in a fight between bull elephants is more likely to mate with females and pass on his genes.   Similarly, kleptoparasitism – the stealing of food, as seen in a number of spiders, cuckoos, coots and hyenas – is demonstrably a successful strategy for survival.  However, ‘the Selfish Gene’, as Richard Dawkins famously refers to it, is also likely to be the foundation of altruism – and of morality.

If you have a moment, please take the time to watch this 15-minute presentation by one of my heroes, primatologist Frans de Waal.  It shows some great examples of how the basics of morality can form in social species and how it can be evolutionary beneficial to be beneficent.

“If you ask anyone, what is morality based on? These are the two factors that always come out: One is reciprocity, … a sense of fairness, and the other one is empathy and compassion.”  – Frans de Waal

The suggestion – and one that makes me less dispirited about the nature of the world in general – is that morality is itself adaptive, just a different way of doing things.  We can be just as successful if we work together and demonstrate cooperation and  compassion than we can through competition.

Of course, normally animals (humans included, most of the time) are not thinking about the long term evolutionary advantage of cooperation and compassion when we act in this way.  It has not been suggested that we are, rather, that we have evolved a tendency towards developing positive social behaviours which benefit others and ourselves.  As ever, we are not alone in this: this video, released this week, is a touching example of compassionate behaviour in dolphins.  Many primate species have complex rules governing their interactions that can take years for infants to learn.   This sort of cooperative behaviour doesn’t even require a big brain; recent studies suggest that rats demonstrate empathy-driven behaviour too (should we try this with the Masked Bandits?)

Humans, with our extensive demonstrations of communication, cultural transmission and cognition, have then hit the snag of disagreeing amongst ourselves about which moral system is the ‘right’ one and what types of behaviours are acceptable in our societies.  We generalise, too, which means that we apply our own moral values outside of our immediate (human) group to other species and choose the level of moral consideration we think they should receive; note that the animals that receive the most human protection are often those ones considered most similar to humans (something I’ve done a bit of research on).   Sometimes, in our generalising, we attribute moral behaviour to animals who may not have the same values as we do; how often have you heard a fox called ‘wasteful’ for killing a cage full of chickens, or a pig ‘filthy’ for bathing in mud?

The upside (or another downside, depending on your moral stance…) is, of course, that many of us widen our compassion and our moral sphere to include nonhumans and even whole ecosystems, so much value do we place on being ‘good’.

However, conflicts between individuals, between societies, between species and between the opposing evolutionary powers of selfishness and altruism make the moral world, in every sense, a dangerous one to walk through.

Nb. If you’re interested in this topic, Prof Marc Bekoff often blogs about morality in animals in his Psychology Today blog.

The Sensory World of the Rat

The Sensory World of the Rat

Just a quick one today to link you, if you’re interested, to this great little page by a Californian rat behaviourist, Anne Hanson.  I make a conscious effort, whenever I think about human-animal interaction or communication, to consider how the same interaction might be perceived from the other side of the fence, as it were.  So, wherever possible I will try to include some information about the animal perspective(s) of the topics covered in the blog.

As I’m sure you can imagine, taking another animal’s perspective – or another person’s, for that matter – is not an easy task (as famously discussed by the philosopher Nagel, if you fancy some, ahem, light reading).  Fortunately, some very diligent scientists have gathered enough information about the physiology of other species to allow them to piece together how they are likely to perceive the world. Hanson’s overview is well-researched and follows on nicely from my musings yesterday about the variety of sensory abilities across species.  Sure, you can see red, but can you hear the ultrasonic squeaks of bats hunting outside?  Thought not.

If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, maybe just look at these videos to get an idea of how the Masked Bandits (probably) see the world.  Our Pearl Masked Bandit is not an albino,  but due to his red eyes his vision is probably only slightly better than that in the albino example.

No Words Necessary

“Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far.”  – Swami Vivekananda

Language, it is often claimed, sets humans apart from other species.  Our extensive development and application of language appear to be unmatched by any single other species.  However, elements of language are found in all sorts of species.  Whenever a new example is discovered (for example, monkeys employing syntax to change the meaning of their calls or dolphins having unique identifying whistles – in other words, names), critics scrabble for the remaining characteristics of language, such as the use of metaphors, that remain uniquely human (see here for an overview of the current state of play).  It is as if there is a fear that humans will be outshone by another species or – perhaps the more likely idea – a fear that humans aren’t as unique as they, we, like to think.

I think this is an overreaction.  Of course we are unique; as you may have surmised from the previous post, we recognise uniqueness in all species and put them in little boxes accordingly. It doesn’t bother us that many animals with wings fly (some better than others) or that predators often share highly developed senses (such as sight in the hawk, or scent in the wolf).  Yet it apparently is a problem that other social species, particularly, have developed similar ways of communicating.  I think the problem lies in a mistaken connection between uniqueness and superiority, a belief that because humans are ‘best at language’, we win a prize somehow.   This kind of thinking is in line with the incorrect interpretation of Darwinian theory that surmises that we are all evolving towards some ideal, perfect being; that evolution is a race that humans are winning.   Perhaps language is the clinging point because, let’s face it, such superiority is not immediately obvious in other aspects of life; we are certainly not adept at flying without some form of jet propulsion and our senses, though well rounded, are not at all exceptional.

We are great communicators though, no doubt about it, and many animals (normally those less reliant on social interaction for survival than ourselves) are not.  Yet all this focus on who does and who does not have language, and how language and communication are not the same thing, can overshadow what I think is a far more interesting topic; that, language or not, many species (ourselves included) are highly capable of communicating between species and across huge chasms of difference in physiology, genetics and worldview.  When we speak of communicating with animals, you might immediately think of Dr Dolittle or Mr Ed… but that’s reverting to language again.  Communication has many forms, and the key to it, I believe, is mutual understanding and sharing of meaning.

I am now going to stop waffling and post a (lighthearted) video that I have made with the help of the Crow and our Masked Bandits, who are going to demonstrate their wonderful ability to make their feelings and intentions known.  They can do it better than I could ever explain here, even with all the attributes of language at my disposal, and they can do it without saying a single word.

A note on this video: although these two are trained to do certain things, such as come to their names, in these clips they are not responding to verbal or visual cues from us.  Particularly interesting (from an ethologist’s point of view) is the ‘shoulder tug’ that our Black Masked Bandit performs when he wants an appendage to become a bridge.  This is entirely self-taught; in fact, he has trained us to respond to his commands, showing just where the power lies here! 

Please contact me using the comments or ‘Contact Battfink’ page if you have any questions or comments about what’s going on in the video, or what I’ve said above.   I’d also appreciate some feedback, positive or negative, on the blog so far; so please comment or contact me, if you can spare the time, to let me know your thoughts or requests for future posts.

The Category Conundrum

We were watching an extended version of QI last night, and one of the questions was,

“Which is more ‘mammaly’; a mouse or a hippopotamus?”

As was discussed on the show, given a few moments thought, both are mammals, so one should not be more or less mammal than the other.  However, it seems that the average human categorises a mouse as a mammal more easily than they do a hippopotamus, probably because hippopotami are slippery and water-dwelling.  Similarly, we apparently consider robins and swallows to be more ‘birdlike’ than flamingos and penguins.

Whilst we might feel a bit silly having to spend a few moments to decide which is the ‘right’ category for a hippopotamus, this is actually completely reasonable; what our brains are doing at this point is recalling and applying a certain set of criteria originating, in these (British) parts, from the Linnaean taxonomical system.  We Brits are normally taught at school that mammals are warm blooded, give birth to live young and feed them milk via mammary glands.  Years down the line, and certainly if one is not inclined to think extensively about animals in the slightly obsessive way that I do, it is easy to forget that classificatory systems like this are not an exact science and, even now, are liable to change.

As it turns out, mammals aren’t the best example for this blog as they have been fairly stable in Western scientific classification for quite some time, though I understand there is some quibbling about the subgroups (those monotremes  – platypuses and echidnas – are tricky; they are warm blooded and they do produce milk, but they also lay eggs and lack nipples…) Echidna. Photo Credit: Ester Inbar

More contentious, and I think more interesting, is the classification of species.  I learned at University the widely accepted biological definition, that a species is defined as a group of organisms that share a gene pool, so are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile young.  In theory, individuals from different species cannot; the classic example is that a donkey and a horse can mate, but they produce a mule or a hinny, which is normally – thought not always – infertile.

However, in the modern biological community it is quite openly admitted  that this definition is a little ‘fuzzy around the edges’.  Hybridisation, or species crossing, has been found to create ‘new’, fertile species. It is thought that the American Red Wolf is in fact a hybrid of the grey wolf and the coyote.  This has been identified by genetic analysis, which allows biologists to identify which species share a common ancestor.

Of course, we all share a common ancestor or ancestors, if you go back far enough.  Evolution is a very slow process that has resulted in millions of hybrids and branches and failed species and – a key point – continues to act on existing species.  Ducks, for example, are frequently crossing the species boundary; many duck species can (and do) successfully interbreed with others, producing hybrids while also maintaining populations of species with clear physical and behaviourals differences.   There is also reasonable genetic evidence to suggest that all modern, non-African humans carry Neanderthal genes, which suggests that we were a partial to a little hybrid action ourselves in days gone by…

Only certain species, notably humans, like to categorise and separate things, fitting them into boxes.  This undoubtedly has many uses, but also allows us to fall into the trap of believing that animal groups and species are fixed, static, completed articles.  This leads to a number of questions about the purposeful human preservation  of certain animal species, a topic I’m sure we will come back around to at a later date!

As useful, detailed and consistently developing as the Linnaean taxonomic system is, it is not the only way that humans categorise other species.  My favourite example is that of the Karam in New Guinea, who have a ‘bird’ category but do not place the cassowary in it. Casuarius Casuarius   I’ve included a cassowary picture here for your perusal.  (I am hugely paraphrasing here from the anthropologist Ralph Bulmer, who wrote a classic paper on the topic in 1967).  In the worldview of the Karam, the cassowary is given its own special classificatory group.  From a physical standpoint, the cassowary is seen as separate from birds and bats because it doesn’t fly (in fact, it doesn’t even perch; it is a very grounded sort of creature), has essentially no wings, appears to have hair rather than feathers and is substantially bigger than any other bird or bat in New Guinea.  It also has very strong, heavy leg bones, which quite resemble those of humans.

So, it is not perhaps unsurprising that – in the same way that an echidna does not, at first glance, lend itself to categorisation as a mammal – the cassowary is not necessarily a bird to the Karam.  There is a second principle, though, that is maybe even more significant to the consideration of how we relate to other species; the Karam hunt the cassowary  in very particular ways and have a lot of specific rules and regulations about how and when cassowaries can be hunted and consumed (or at least they did at the time of Bulmer’s article).  They therefore require a separate, unique categorisation for these birds, to account as much for their cultural significance as their biological oddities.

Despite having the Linnaean system widely taught and practiced here in the UK, we are not exempt from this kind of cultural classification.  A domestic dog, Canis familiaris, of the class Mammalia and the family Canidae (dogs), is also a ‘pet’; which means that we feed them, train them, groom them, often love them and generally don’t shoot or eat them.  The red fox, Vulpes vulpes, on the other hand, is also in the dog family, but is a whole different kettle of cultural fish.  I mean, mammal.

So, next time you are asked to classify an animal, you will now know how to completely over-think it and miss the next ten minutes of QI…