May 2010

On my wildlife walk, one of the animals I talk about is ravens, which I refer to as flying bears because they’re so smart.

Well, it turns out that ravens not only are smart but are also empathetic. While it’s long been assumed that animals have no thoughts or feelings, research in recent years has increasingly shown that this assumption is not true. Yet, acts of altruism documented during research are often referred to as “seemingly altruistic behavior,” with explanations that the behavior isn’t truly altruistic because the behavior favors passing on family genes (kin selection) or the altruism is just the returning of a favor (reciprocity).  If you think about it, how many acts of human altruism could be ascribed to kin selection, reciprocity, or an expectation of a reward (in this life or the next)?

In this study, the authors seem to believe that ravens actually feel empathy and they describe the behavior as “altruistic” (not “seemingly altruistic”). The behavior seems to depend on the strength of their relationships. It doesn’t seem that surprising because adult ravens form lasting (lifelong) relationships and do pair bonding activities not unlike those humans do, such as grooming each other, gift giving, and joint acrobatics (perhaps akin to dancing?).

Wired Science

Ravens Console Each Other After Fights

By Jennifer Welsh
May 17, 2010

After ravens see a friend get a beat down, they approach the victim and appear to console it, according to new research.

Orlaith Fraser and her co-author Thomas Bugnyar watched the aftermath of 152 fights over a two year period between 13 hand-reared young adult ravens housed at the Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Austria. What they found was the first evidence for birds consoling one another.

“It’s not a good thing for your partner to be distressed,” Fraser explained. “It’s interesting to see these behaviors in animals other than chimpanzees. It seems to be more ingrained in evolutionary history.”

Read the rest of the article… or read the full journal article on PLoS.

While the research may not be as robust for other animals, it seems like a lot of animals mourn death.


Chimps Understand and Mourn Death, Research Suggests

By Charles Q. Choi
posted: 26 April 2010 12:07 pm ET

Chimpanzees may gather in hushed quiet to watch a fellow ape in her dying moments, and chimp mothers in the wild may carry their infants’ mummified remains for weeks, according to new research on how humanity’s closest living relatives deal with the deaths of those closest to them.

Insights into how chimpanzees respond to the death of one of their own are rare. One such instance came with the final hours of Pansy, a chimp more than 50 years old who lived in a Scottish safari park.

In the days leading up to the elderly chimp’s peaceful demise in 2008, her group was very quiet and moved to sleep near her, the researchers found. Immediately before Pansy died, others groomed and caressed her often. One male chimpanzee, Chippie, apparently tested her for signs of life as she died by closely inspecting her mouth and moving her limbs.

Read the rest of the article…

Yesterday, I saw a sow with two yearlings who we’ve probably never seen before (and certainly haven’t captured before–they were untagged). While they may not realize it yet, the time these yearlings have with their mother is short, and they will find themselves on their own probably in about a month. This seemed like a close-knit family–the yearlings were staying very close to their mother. What will they think when she abandons them (so she can mate again)?

The same day, I read that an already-abandoned yearling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park bit a visitor who allowed the bear to approach him for a photograph. The visitor received a minor wound not requiring medical attention, a cool story, and probably some nice photographs. The 60-pound yearling received an early end to her life.

I’ve noticed over the years that yearlings–the teenagers of the bear world–behave rather similarly to teenagers of the human world: they think they’re invincible. I’ve noticed how they seem to have little fear of people and frequently approach people or allow people to approach them. Oddly, this is something they wouldn’t have tolerated while with their mother–and (if they make it past their yearling phase) is something they tolerate a lot less when they’re older.

So, the question is: how will these yearlings fare? It depends on us respecting these bears from a distance, lest they meet the fate of the Smokies yearling.

Sow and yearlings

Sow and yearlings in Yosemite Valley

(You can read the Great Smoky Mountains story at the website of the Asheville Citizen-Times.)