Evolutionary theorists have long recognized that the domestication of animals represented a major change in human life, providing not just a close-at-hand food source, but also non-human muscle power and a host of other advantages. Penn State anthropologist Prof. Pat Shipman argues that animal domestication is one manifestation of a larger distinctive trait of our species, the ‘animal connection,’ which unites and underwrites a number of the most important evolutionary advances of our hominin ancestors.
Shipman’s proposal is discussed in a recent forum paper in Current Anthropology and is the subject of her forthcoming book, The Animal Connection. The paper is interesting to us here at Neuroanthropology.net because Shipman indirectly poses fascinating questions about the evolutionary significance of human-animal relationships, including the cognitive abilities of both and how they interact.
No other mammal routinely adopts other species in the wild — no gazelles take in baby cheetahs, no mountain lions raise baby deer…. Every mouthful you feed to another species is one that your own children do not eat. On the face of it, caring for another species is maladaptive, so why do we humans do this?
Although researchers working on symbiotic inter-species relationships might highlight that the support of other species hardly requires adopting their young and feeding them canned kitten food (a critique Travis Pickering levels in his comments), Shipman’s statement highlights nicely that human-animal inter-species relationships seem to extend beyond merely treating them as tameable prey or means to a human end. But then again, this super-instrumentality could be ascribed to a large number of human traits.
The domestication of animals wasn’t merely about capturing a buffet-on-the-hoof, from Shipman’s perspective, but the continuation of a long-term evolutionary project by our species to study animals, first when we were prey for them, and later as predators ourselves.
Behind the squirrel’s success lies a phenomenal elasticity of body, brain and behavior. Squirrels can leap a span 10 times the length of their body, roughly double what the best human long jumper can manage. They can rotate their ankles 180 degrees, and so keep a grip while climbing no matter which way they’re facing. Squirrels can learn by watching others — cross-phyletically, if need be.
In the acuity of their visual system, the sensitivity and deftness with which they can manipulate objects, their sociability, chattiness and willingness to deceive, squirrels turn out to be surprisingly similar to primates. They nest communally as multigenerational, matrilineal clans, and at the end of a hard day’s forage, they greet each other with a mutual nuzzling of cheek and lip glands that looks decidedly like a kiss.
The gray squirrel is diurnal and has the keen eyesight to match. “Its primary visual cortex is huge,” said Jon H. Kaas, a comparative neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, A squirrel’s peripheral vision is as sharp as its focal eyesight, which means it can see what’s above and beside it without moving its head.
“We’ve seen seeds that were recached as many as five times,” said Dr. Steele. The squirrels recache to deter theft, lest another squirrel spied the burial the first X times. Reporting in the journal Animal Behaviour, the Steele team showed that when squirrels are certain that they are being watched, they will actively seek to deceive the would-be thieves. They’ll dig a hole, pretend to push an acorn in, and then cover it over, all the while keeping the prized seed hidden in their mouth. “Deceptive caching involves some pretty serious decision making,” Dr. Steele said. “It meets the criteria of tactical deception, which previously was thought to only occur in primates.”
“I think at every opportunity we need to say, Wow, well, I’m a monkey.” Entertaining interview with Dave Matthews on Q with Jian Ghomeshi, part of CBC radio. All about vervet monkeys. Matthews is quite the story teller!
Matthews’ last story, about male vervet monkeys’ family jewels, is entirely true. I’ve included some vivid photographs if you just click for more. The blue color of the scrotum actually varies according to dominance status – a bright, vivid blue is connected with higher male status. Show offs!
Chimpanzees can routinely beat the best humans at instant memory recall. Here’s the blurb:
Ben Pridmore ranks in the number two spot for worldwide memory competitions, can memorize the order of a full deck of cards in only 30 seconds, and regularly memorizes numbers up to 400 digits long. But in a test performed by the British television program “Extraordinary Animals,” Pridmore’s performance fell far short of that of a seven-year-old male chimpanzee named Ayumu.
Imitating the format of a scientific study in which Ayumu had formerly participated, both human and chimpanzee watched a screen on which five numbers were displayed briefly before being replaced by white boxes. They then had to touch the blank boxes in the order of the numbers they had formerly displayed.
When the numbers were shown for only a fifth of a second, Ayumu still scored 90 percent correct; Pridmore’s score, on the other hand, was only 33 percent.
But in this video, you can see that the chimps take it up to 9! (No, not 11, that only happens in Spinal Tap.)
There is an entire YouTube bio on Ayumu, where you can also see more of the memory training. You can even try the memory game yourself! It’s freakin’ hard!
The following video is the best illustration I have ever seen of how chimpanzees hunt together in coordinated fashion, with different individuals having different roles. It combines both on-the-ground video and overhead infrared to illustrate just how this group of chimpanzees manages a successful hunt of colobus monkeys. Incredible footage!
I use this film in my Introduction to Anthropology class, it just has some extraordinary footage. Mike Richards, the cameraman, spent two years on this project! Here is one clip, where the chimps are filmed cooperatively hunting colobus monkeys. Wow.