We all know a nasty cat, a happy-go-lucky dog and a brave fish that perseveres through a long journey to find his son. (OK, one is a Disney movie, but the idea stands.) While a lot of cultures don't anthropomorphize animals into pets, it's easy for some of us to assume that many nonhumans relate to us. And it turns out those who see animals as more than just instinct and action might be on to something.
In this article, we'll explore how our animal friends (and enemies) engage in behavior that might surprise us humans. From a sense of humor to a general bent toward putting off undesirable tasks, animals have shown a propensity for actions that superficially seem more suited to your next-door neighbor than the alley cat.
Let's start with an example of behavior that doesn't only surprise us in animals, but just might indicate that we humans aren't as bad as we think.
Ever seen your dog yawn and realize you were a bit tuckered out, too? Well, it might also work the other way around. Scientists have noted that monkeys will yawn at an image of a yawning buddy. They've also noted mice who feel fear when they see pals in danger [source: Ham]. This kind of behavior indicates empathy, or when an individual can recognize and feel what someone else is feeling.
Empathy in animals might also indicate that we as humans might not be evil at heart as some would believe. The characteristic fosters cooperation, so an animal is not putting his or her needs ahead of the group's. This research implies that, even though empathy isn't always useful for survival, kindness is a tool of natural selection that did win out in the long term. So perhaps evolution has proven that nice guys do finish first. Or at least don't finish by getting eaten by a lion.
Now let's take a look at something every viral video has already taught us -- that animals can be hilarious. But this time, it's scripted.
Nobody has to tell us that animals can be funny: from dogs chasing their tails to potty-mouthed parrots, we know that animals can make us laugh. But did you know that animals themselves laugh?
When researchers at the University of Washington discovered that rats make a high-pitched, ultrasonic chirping noise, they initially weren't sure what it communicated. But a flash of inspiration led one of the scientists to, well, tickle his test subjects. And indeed, it appeared that rats showed the same biological response as humans when confronted by the Tickle Monster: peals of giggles.
But laughing, of course, doesn't prove a sense of humor. So when researchers witness chimps playing peekaboo, they have a little more solid evidence of animals that don't just laugh but understand how to make others laugh. And then there's the story of the gorilla that got his kicks by running beside his trainer, along the length of his cage, at full speed. The gorilla would suddenly stop and laugh uproariously as the human kept running past him, seemingly delighted to find a Stupid Human Trick [source: Santa Maria].
Sure, it's not exactly Louis C.K. material. But better than Dane Cook?
Crows are super crazy weird smart. And although it's hard to prove "super crazy weird" through science, researchers have at least been able to show that our onyx flying friends engage in super crazy weird smart behavior. Example A: recognizing the face that they hold a grudge for.
Scientists at the University of Washington had no idea what they were getting into when they started trapping crows for research. They noticed that the birds began harassing them whenever they stepped out of the office, regardless of what clothes they were wearing. So they experimented by wearing different masks when they trapped the birds. It turns out, when they would walk around campus later wearing the same masks, the birds once again wouldn't leave them alone. One researcher even put on a mask the crow crew had used five years ago for trapping and the Hitchcockian birds descended -- which implies that the older ones had let the word spread about which faces were good and bad [source: Pappas].
Admittedly, this grudge maybe isn't of the "I'll never forgive my cheating ex-boyfriend" variety (although I wouldn't put it past them). But it does imply that crows have an uncanny ability to recognize faces and to gossip with the best of 'em to let their community know who's a threat.
You might have romantic ideas about monogamy in the animal kingdom, but the truth is that only about 5 percent of species are together forever ... and forever is relative, because while they may be socially entwined with one other animal, the advent of genetic testing has taught us that they aren't entirely faithful sexually [source: Harmon].
But don't throw away your promise ring yet. Several animal species have been shown to naturally stick with one partner, with both parents taking care to raise and protect the kiddos, too. And although they might not be the most elegant example to point to during a wedding toast, prairie voles don't just mate for life but also groom each other and share a parental role. Studies found that even after a mate died, fewer than 20 percent found another mate [source: Harmon]. Sandhill cranes also mate for life, and messing around (or, as researchers call it, "extra-pair copulation") is so rare that a paper was written about an instance it was discovered, in 2006 [source: Hayes].
But monogamy isn't strictly for male and female pairs. Let's take a look at some animals that have what many think of as a "less traditional" partnership.
First off, let's get one thing straight. (Ahem.) Calling animals "gay" or "lesbian" is a little silly; usually when we talk about animals being "gay" or "straight," we're talking about them engaging in homosexual acts, which -- in animals -- is interesting from an evolutionary perspective. But even more surprising might be the monogamous same-sex relationships animals engage in that may or may not include sexual activity.
For years, scientists studied albatrosses for their seeming dedication to their sexual partner. But less than a decade ago, researchers were astonished to discover that nearly a third of the birds in one colony were actually female pairs. The male and females look alike, and scientists had only identified that the birds stayed together forever, protecting a nest -- and never questioned their sexes. Both male-female and female-female pairs exhibited the same kind of parenting duties and even affection. And keep in mind that some of these pairs had been together for more than 15 years [source: Mooallem].
Now, let's turn from romantic pursuits and concentrate on how animals teach each other useful information.
This one is tricky, because most animals do learn and thus can be taught certain behaviors or activities. What we're talking about is not just observation and imitation, but an animal actively trying to correct and intervene. There's a study that shows that chimps, for instance, don't correct a younger chimp who is incorrectly trying to crack a nut. Instead, the younger chimp must just learn by trial and error [source: Zimmer].
But there are a few examples of animals actively showing "method" in teaching. One is the meerkat, a species that includes scorpions as part of their diet. Instead of teaching their young ones by letting them loose to try their hand (a dangerous activity for those without experience), they bring back dead or nearly dead scorpions for "practice." As the pups get better at racking up fatalities, the parents bring back scorpions that get progressively livelier, until the younger ones are skilled enough to hunt themselves.
Even more sly are elephants who teach their kiddos. A young fertile female might shy away from the advances of a strong bull -- a mistake for both protection and procreation. An older female will fake being fertile, and cuddle up to the bull. The young female will see the error of her ways, and approach the bull herself.
An extraordinary study of animal behavior gave us a glimpse of how chimps react to the death of a friend. It's actually a really heartbreaking read; the scientists detail the grief of the chimps and all the actions they take [source: Anderson, Gilles, Lock]. And it's not just wailing and gnashing of teeth that might parallel both human and animal behavior. The chimps took part in what we probably consider quite natural activities for any human at the death of a pal. That includes not being able to sleep, tossing and turning in bed the night after her death and even avoiding the space the chimp died in. They even removed straw from the corpse, to prepare the body.
Researchers have also showed that wolves react differently -- as a group -- to a death. For one, scientists noted that they bayed alone and didn't howl together after a death. Physically, their tails and heads were lowered and they moved slower, without play. Elephants, too, are also known for grieving, and have even shown evidence of paying "homage" to their dead by touching the corpse of another in specific patterns.
But enough sad news: let's take a look at some surprising ways animals have learned to survive.
We hear a lot about the fight-or-flight instinct in humans, and how it's a link to our animal instincts. But several species of animals have more sophisticated -- or at least unusual -- behaviors when perceiving a threat.
Consider the bonobo. When things get testy in the bonobo communities, they don't respond by lashing out aggressively. Instead, the apes defuse the situation in another passionate way: with sex. And it's not just love they share: Bonobos seem to be altruistic creatures in general. They're more inclined to share with strangers than fight them for property and engage in sexual acts with bonobo pals if tempers flare. It's led to a life for the apes that some humans might consider a near-utopia of free love and peace.
In another case of animals protecting themselves in creative ways, gorillas in Rwanda were observed disabling snares set by poachers. Conservationists were surprised to see that the gorillas were able to recognize and disable the traps, but it seems that the gorilla had developed a quick, systematic way of destroying any threats they found.
But for every bonobo and gorilla ready to take action (however loving) against a threat, there are animals that just can't manage to get anything done. Read on to find out who procrastinates in the animal world -- or just wait and look later.
You'd think that animals would have an instant-gratification mandate that would make them pretty willing to do whatever they needed to accomplish a goal right then. But like any human, it seems that some of them would rather put off what could be done now for what could also be done tomorrow. And which advanced, intellectual species showed the same aptitude that humans have when they decide to wait until Sunday night to finish that term paper on "Anna Karenina"?
It's our special friend the pigeon. An animal so stupid it gets hit by slow-moving cars while hanging out in the middle of the street, the pigeon shares our human habit to "think about it tomorrow." Researchers conducted a study that showed that pigeons were inclined to forgo a small aversive task now, even if it meant having to do a larger aversive task later. Which might explain their nonchalant attitude about flying away from a moving car [source: Mazur]?
On the other side of procrastination is a kind of discipline: self-control. Let's see what animals also strive for restraint.
We humans can often assume that what sets us apart from animals is our regal ability to possess self-control and resist temptation to achieve what is good for us. But turns out we're not as above it all as we'd like to think. (Or at the very least, we have a fair amount of company above it all.)
Studies conducted on chimps have shown that they can delay reaching for a serving of sweets placed in front of them. They also found that chimps would use toys, pictures or objects to distract them from reaching -- just like a human who flips through a magazine to sidetrack himself from that last slice of cake in the kitchen, perhaps? Dogs have also demonstrated that their self-control functions in a similar way to humans; specifically that glucose helps them exert self-control.
So the next time you're taking Fido for a restrained walk -- or watching voles parent together or getting the stink-eye from a crow -- remember that their behavior might be instinctual or primitive, but it sure isn't solely "animal."
Rabbits can be fluffy bundles of laziness or superbly rambunctious. Learn if rabbits really go crazy in March at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Surprising Behaviors in Nonhuman Animals
I guess it doesn't shock me that animals are capable of more sophisticated behaviors than eat-mate-sleep. But more than once writing this article, I gasped out loud when reading. To think that crows were actually recruited at one point to help find and identify Osama bin Laden [source: Chittim]? Or that elephants touch their tusks to the corpse of a comrade in what can be seen as a show of mourning? It's hard not to be surprised -- and occasionally straight-up impressed -- with the sophistication of our animal pals.
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