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.






“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 Good, the Bad and Demodex

As you may have surmised by now, I’m interested in interactions between unlike organisms, or symbiotic relationships.  These can take a variety of forms and so I thought it worthwhile to distinguish between the three main types, as referred to by biologists, naturalists and the like.  It’s also worth noting here that a symbiotic relationship is a long-term (or comparatively long-term)  association, differentiating it from passing interactions such as those between a predator and its prey.

Amphiprion ocellaris (Clown anemonefish) in Heteractis magnifica (Sea anemone) - Photo Credit: Nick HobgoodMy favourite type (you don’t have a favourite type of symbiosis? … sort it out) is the mutualistic relationship, the kind that most people connect with the term ‘symbiotic’.  This essentially means that, over the course of their association, both individuals benefit from their interactions with one another (this is not to say that such a relationship is without potential cost, rather, overall the benefits to both are greater).

Remember Finding Nemo?  The classic example of a mutualism is the well-documented relationship between clown fish and anemones, in which the clown fish reduce the parasite-burden of the anemones and, in return, are sheltered from predators by the anemones’ tentacles. It’s also thought that the bright colours of the fish attract smaller fish for the anemones to consume and that the fish additionally benefit by ‘hoovering up’ the fishy leftovers; they didn’t mention that bit in Finding Nemo, of course.

Most people are aware of the second type, parasitism.  The parasite in an interaction is one that benefits from an association to the detriment of the other, the ‘host’.  A parasite may have more than one host throughout its life-cycle.   It is the most ‘selfish’ form of symbiosis and  abounds throughout the natural world.  It is often in the best interest of a parasite to keep its host(s) alive until it is ready to move to the next stage in its life cycle; in some cases, this includes manipulating the body or mind of the host to its advantage.

Euhaplorchis californiensis, a tropical flatworm, has three hosts: horn snails, killifish and various killifish-eating birds.  It therefore relies on what is essentially an entire food chain to survive. Horn snails eat the flatworm’s eggs, which hatch and develop inside the snail’s body and make it infertile (by eating its gonads, in case you were wondering).  The flatworm larvae, which have spade-shaped heads and ‘swimming tails’, then leave the snail and head out into the water, where they attach to the gills of killifish and make their way inside, all the way to the brain.  There, they form cysts across the brain’s surface, which alter the fishes’ behavioural responses.  It is thought that, when an infested killifish spots a predator, its response (rather than the normal behaviour, i.e. hiding) is to ‘flash’ to the surface and flop around.  Unsurprisingly, this raises the chance of the parasite-infested fish being eaten by a local shore-bird, thus allowing the flatworm to complete its life cycle by breeding inside the bird.  The eggs fall to earth in the birds’ faeces… and the whole thing starts again.  There is a nice little video about this particular parasite here.

I chose this example partially because I think it’s fascinating and partially because it is a good demonstration of the variability of parasite-host interactions.  All of the species here are disadvantaged by the parasite’s presence, but to differing extremes. Although the birds may not appear significantly harmed, carrying parasites (by definition) has a detrimental effect on health; the worm is taking its sustenance from the birds’ own supplies, which can lead, for example, to their lacking in vital nutrients or becoming susceptible to other diseases or parasites.  The snails become infertile, a clear reproductive disadvantage (although I’m sure any man reading this would be more immediately concerned about the prospect of having their gonads eaten).  The fish, of course, lose their lives.  Again, some might think that even this is preferable to the slow chomping of gonads, but that’s not for me to say.

Parasites are vastly numerous and variable; humans, as I’m sure you know, carry a fair few themselves.  In some cases, it has been proposed, humans can also take the role of a parasite; although people are often offended by this classification, it is not completely without grounds.   The situation is generally more complex when humans are involved, because while one human or group of humans might maintain a practice that could be considered parasitism (for example, the draining of bile from live Asiatic bears), this behaviour is not typical of humans; there is an ethical and cultural dimension to our own practices that, one would assume, does not exist amongst flatworms.

A brief look, now, at the third (often forgotten, I think) type of symbiosis.  This is called ‘commensalism’ and is inhabited by the unsung (though not always unnoticed) creatures of the symbiotic word.  A commensal is one that benefits from its association with another species without significantly helping or harming their associate.

Distribution of the Brown Rat, Rattus NorvegicusThe human-rat relationship (and here I mean the most common kind, of rustling in the night and skittering in the gutter) is a classic case of commensalism; wherever humans go, there go rats (see their world distribution map, below).   Rats live alongside humans and benefit from our shelter, our warmth and our refuse; but they are not, in themselves, parasites upon us.  Don’t be fooled by the plague and similar diseases; these are carried by fleas, which are parasites on the rats, but the rats do not benefit from our disease; they are simply a part of its transmission, as water is to cholera. Brown Rat, Rattus Norvegicus Photo Credit: Losch

Rats are successful, in significant part, because humans are.  Although rats are probably the most common example of a human commensal, as I’ve already noted, different individuals form different kinds of symbioses with humans: the sewer rat may be a commensal, but the fancy rat – the same species, just somewhat altered – can be a pampered pet.  On the other side of the coin, there is the laboratory rat, also the same species.

Demodex clinging to a human hair strand. Photo: MasleshaSo, I’ll finish on more stable ground by introducing you to another commensal, a new friend you might not previously have met, which goes by the name Demodex. Demodex mites (there are about 200 types) live around the hair follicles of mammals and two species (d. folliculorum and d. brevis) live on humans, specifically on your eyelashes and eyebrows.  Yours?  Yes, quite possibly; it is understood that about half of all adult humans have them.  They eat skin cells and secretions and occasionally wander around at night (yes, really), but for the most part do no harm, certainly not alone, though occasionally a significant population can cause irritation to the skin.  If you are so minded, you can study your eyebrow hairs under a microscope to see if you have your own commensal collection.  I haven’t got round to that, to be honest, but if I did find them, I think I’d name them all Dexter.

It is clear from these examples that the lines between the types of relationship we classify as ‘symbiotic’ are not clear; similarly, it is not always clear when a relationship is lengthy or involved enough to be classed as symbiotic.  This returns us to my previous post about classification, and I would stress that this is a ‘rough guide’ only; the world is really too complex to be so simply divided.  Still, I personally find that these particular divisions provide a broad frame of reference for the various associations and interactions in this blog (and elsewhere in life; nature programmes, the garden, the office…).  I hope they serve you and your Demodex just as well.

(If this has inflamed a dormant fascination for parasites, you might be interested in this blog.  If you just want to see another creepy parasite altering brain activity, this is a brilliantly disgusting example).