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.





For the Love of Camels


Anyone who knows me will by now have learned that I have an unusual fondness for camels.  As I’ve picked up some new readers (thank you all, by the way, for stopping by), I decided I should probably bring this up to, you know, put my cards on the table.

I love camels.

Of course, that fact in itself is not worthy of a blog post in anyone’s mind but mine.  What IS worthy of a post, though, is the inevitable response whenever this idiosyncrasy of mine comes up, which happens more than you’d think.  Except at the International Camel Conference (yes, there is one and yes, I’ve been) the next question is pretty much always, “erm… why?”

Why indeed.  The irreplaceable Sir David Attenborough was on the Jonathan Ross show on Saturday night – UK readers can catch up here for the next month (by which time it will probably be on YouTube anyway).  Although, as ever, he spoke many words of wisdom (Sir Dave, not Jonathan Ross, he rarely speaks words of wisdom), the exchange I found particularly interesting was this:

JR: “Would you call yourself an animal lover, or is it just an academic interest?”

DA: “I am absolutely fascinated by animals… I mean the word ‘lover’ is, you know, a funny old word… [laughter] – well it is, isn’t it? I don’t love snails, particularly, but they are very interesting.  Have you ever seen snails mating?”

This is more along the lines of what I mean when I say I ‘love’ camels, though not quite the whole picture.  The word ‘love’ has many of interpretations. I don’t, for example, love camels in the same way that I love the Crow (i.e. romantically), my parents (i.e. familiarly) or even the Masked Bandits; our love for pets, incidentally, is an interesting one as it’s almost a halfway house between the love for friends and family. There are elements of both bonding and of a desire to nurture… but I digress.

When we say we ‘love’ animals, then, what are we getting at?  Surely, as Sir Dave notes, we rarely love ALL animals.  I’m certainly not a fan of crane flies, or (as noted in my first blog) mosquitoes.  Equally, many people are not a fan of camels, particularly in the Western hemisphere.  In these parts, if I said, “I love dogs” or (slightly more contentiously at the moment) “I love cats”, many people would say, “Awww, me too.”  This is not generally the response with camels.

I have read, written and spoken at length on various camel-related issues and in this time have learned a great deal about them.  The more I have learned, the more fascinated I have become.  Did you know, for example, that camels can sense water from up to 3 km away?  That they have three eyelids?  That their milk naturally contains an insulin-type protein that can be used to treat diabetes? That they pee ‘backwards’ (i.e. between their back legs, in the opposite direction to cows, horses etc.)? That they are one of a select few animals observed to respond to music?  All true. However, I’m not here to try and convince you to like camels, but to ask you to reconsider why you might not ‘love’ camels like you do dogs, or cats, or horses. If you aren’t interested in animals at all, of course, there’s little for you here: sorry. If you already love camels, you’ll enjoy this post, so please continue!

Camel Face. Photo Credit: eNil I will grant you that camels smell.  That is inescapable, but then so do many mammals (wet dog, particularly, is not a pleasant scent, nor are various human… odours).  Some dislike camels because of their ability to spit a delicious concoction of partially chewed food, saliva and digestive juices.  Fair enough, if one has spat at you.  Has that happened to you?  What were you doing at the time?  I would put money on whatever it was being fairly irritating.  Still others see camels as ‘grumpy’, or ‘aloof’.  Well, if your eyes were similarly positioned in relation to your nose and your head was seven to eight feet off the ground, people might think you were aloof, too.

Western explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries tended to be scathing and even vicious about the camels they encountered on their travels:

“In almost everything written on life in the desert the camel bears a bad name, and indeed he richly deserves it… he has the combined malice and stupidity of the worst kind of Georgia mule.  He is ugly as sin… his black heart is filled with melancholy hatred.”  – W. Seabrook, 1927

I sense Seabrook rode a rather bad-tempered camel; camels display the same amount of individual variation in personality and temperament as most species, especially social vertebrates.  However, his enthusiasm to denigrate an entire genus in this way suggests a certain cultural prejudice not necessarily related to real camel behaviour.  Fortunately, other explorers were more sensitive to their surroundings:

 “Many Englishmen have written about camels.  When I open a book and see the familiar disparagement, the well-worn humour, I realised that the author’s knowledge of them is slight, that he has never lived among the Bedu, who know the camel’s worth.” – W Thesiger, 1959

In news reports and on the internet at large, camels are still portrayed as a bit of a joke – long, gangly legs, droopy lips, interesting noises and, of course, the hump (or two).  In fact, their relationship with humans has been one of the most extensive and enduring of all such associations and their centrality to certain cultures can hardly be overstated.   Anthropologist Teka found that many Afar families in Ethiopia, were:

 “unanimous to endorse the idea that they prefer to lose a son than a camel.  According to them, if a son dies you bury him and you may or may not get another son, but life continues… but if a camel dies everything is left where it is, and there is no movement which means there is no life and the household collapses.” (Teka, 1991)

Al Dhafra Camel Festival.  Photo Credit: A RahmanSimilarly, until comparatively recently many Arabian peoples relied on the camel’s provision of transport, milk and general all-round assistance with a desert lifestyle. In the modern Middle East the dromedary is still considered a gift of Allah and its cultural history and symbolism continue to be celebrated through beauty contests, heritage festivals and camel racing, a modern form of an old Bedouin pastime.

If we all take a step back, though, away from our cultural baggage and projection of our learned ideals of beautiful and desirable characteristics, the true camel comes into focus.  As with cats in my previous post: camels are camels, they are this regardless.

When I think of camels, I think of an incredible, exemplar culmination of powerful evolutionary pressures, I think of the incredible (to me) feats of endurance they are able to achieve on a daily basis, I think of their individual, humorous characters and I think of their ability to form bonds with each other and with humans.  I think of their unique way of maintaining life in desolate lands.  I also think of Shilan, the camel so small, white and fluffy he was more like a large llama, who carried me uncomplainingly for days across quiet desert sands.  My research and experience of camels has extended my interest into something that is a form of love – interest, admiration, pleasure in their company.  I think that counts.

I don’t see love and hate as external forces.  I see humans as learners, absorbers, flexible and moulded by our experiences and the world in which we are immersed.  For me this is a connection with the camel, perhaps surprisingly given my cultural background.  I would not pressure or presume anyone else to feel the same.

Still: when the next person asks me why on earth I am so engrossed by camels, I will point them to this extremely self-indulgent blog and reply: why on earth not?


“Dog evolved ‘on the waste dump'” – ?

This BBC article by Jonathan Amos tells us that new evidence appears to support the ‘dogs as scavengers’ hypothesis (i.e., that the human-dog relationship evolved through a process of assimilation; dogs hung around the food generated by human settlements, so hung around human settlements and moved from a commensal to a mutualistic relationship with humans by gradually involving themselves in human existence.  The most docile and cooperative would be more successful and may therefore have benefited from additional human benefaction.

The ‘opposing’ hypothesis is that we humans were the agents in the interaction; some humans adopted wolves (as puppies, it is often suggested, which allowed them to be more easily tamed) and began to use them for hunting or possibly security, selecting for traits that served the humans best. Photo Credit: Przykuta

If I had to pick one, I would go for the scavenger hypothesis; not just because of this recent evidence, which is interesting, but also because in some cultures dogs still are, essentially, commensals.  They hang around villages, not owned and not wanted, and scavenge.  Genetically, these dogs are as closely related to wolves as they are domestic dogs; the researchers think this indicates that they have been more ‘naturally selected’ than other domestic dogs, with less human input into their evolutionary development. (This suggests, though, that human involvement in an association automatically makes the result ‘unnatural’, a line of thought I don’t tend to agree with – more on that another time).

The human preferences in question have led, it is thought, to ‘neoteny’ in dogs. This means they appear to have evolved into permanent wolf-pups, with many youthful characteristics, (that would in wolves be ‘grown out of’) preserved into adulthood.  Examples are obedience, docility, flatter faces and floppy ears, though this obviously varies between breeds and individuals.

Personally, I don’t think the two theories are necessarily mutually-exclusive; if I remember rightly, there is also evidence to suggest that wolves were domesticated almost concurrently in multiple cultures; this being the case, there’s no reason why different processes could have prevailed in different areas.  There’s also nothing to say that humans chose to feed, raise and employ certain individuals from the local scavenger pack, which could have accelerated a symbiotic process.

Acknowledging, then, that the dog is not a chosen domesticate or companion everywhere, for those cultures (like mine) which have an enduring and generally positive relationship with them, I prefer to think in terms of ‘co-evolution’: we didn’t pin them down and force them to associate with us and they didn’t coerce us into it…. I like to think we chose one another.

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).