The Social and Emotional Lives of Animals
We all know that animals lead complex social and emotional lives. They can feel pain, loss, joy, and happiness, just as we do. But we still love learning about just how smart and emotionally and socially complex animals are!
Here are some of the most fascinating, funny, and sobering things we’ve learned about animals so far this year. We find that the more we learn, the more we’re reminded of just how much animals are like us—and how much we’re like them.
- Chickens are no bird-brains. Chickens in a flock recognize each other by facial features, recognizing more than 100 chickens; chickens understand that a hidden object does not cease to exist; and a mother hen begins bonding with her offspring long before they hatch, turning the eggs more than five times an hour and clucking to the unborn chicks.
- Ever wonder how animals see the world? (The tiny mantis shrimp might have the most sophisticated eyes on the planet.) Or about animal sleep? (Dolphins can sleep with only half their brain while the other half stays awake!) Or about animal culture? Learn about all this and more in delightful 5-minute videos in the series Animalism on YouTube.
- We’ve all heard that dolphins are really smart. But do we know how smart? One semi-captive dolphin was taught a behavior where every time she brought a piece of litter to the surface from the bottom of her tank she was rewarded with a fish. She quickly began tearing up scraps of paper litter underwater so that she could bring up each piece separately and be rewarded with a fish for each!
- For many years, the science was inconclusive as to whether or not fish could experience pain in the same way that mammals do. Some scientists asserted that their nervous systems are not complex enough for them to feel pain in a meaningful way, i.e., that they can experience “pain” but not “suffering.” A recent scientific meta-review, however, examined 98 different studies on fish pain and concluded that fish do indeed experience pain in a way comparable to mammals. The author of the study stated, “If we accept fish experience pain, then this has important implications for how we treat them,” adding that steps should be taken to make sure fish are “humanely caught and killed” and the animals should be handled with care. Learn more about the lives of fish; check out the book What a Fish Knows and listen to the author interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air.
- To help drive home just how endangered some animals are, a team of artists have created photos composed of as many pixels as there are animals still alive in these species. The more pixelated (and thus harder to see) the image, the more at risk the animals are of extinction. Below are images of the black rhino, the Javan rhino, and the pygmy elephant. See all the photos here.
- “For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not.” The Atlantic article A Journey Into the Animal Mind takes a fascinating deep dive into the science of consciousness and its implications for the inner lives of animals, even those that are far from us on the evolutionary tree of life. For centuries — and even some to this day — scientists have contended that animals do not experience consciousness in a way that gives them emotions like joy, suffering, fear, or pride. But more and more evidence (such as the mirror test, tool use, and even the discovery of animal dialects) has emerged in recent years that challenge this contention. In the article, the author explains that it is possible that consciousness evolved in nature before mammals and birds split on the evolutionary tree, or consciousness has evolved more than once in different classes of animals. Either way, most importantly, “Both scenarios would give us reason to believe that nature can knit molecules into waking minds more easily than previously guessed. This would mean that all across the planet, animals large and small are constantly generating vivid experiences that bear some relationship to our own.” How incredible to try to imagine the inner life of a fish, or a stork, or a giraffe.
- A Journey Into the Animal Mind is also filled with intriguing research findings about invertebrate intelligence and consciousness, animals across species working collaboratively in sophisticated ways, how fruit flies seem to cope with poor mating prospects, and more.
- Dr. Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist and ethologist, argues convincingly in his most recent book, Mama’s Last Hug, against “any notion of human exceptionalism in the emotional realm.” He explores the intersection of thought and emotion, and provides ample examples and evidence of animal emotions and inner lives. The book begins with a moving story of a chimpanzee, the matriarch of a group in a Netherlands zoo, on her deathbed. When she is visited by a biologist friend she hasn’t seen in many years, she pulls him close and strokes his hair.
Want more? Here are some books that swing the door wide open on understanding animal intelligence, emotions, and social lives: Second Nature (2010), When Elephants Weep (1995), The Emotional Lives of Animals (2007), Pleasurable Kingdom (2006), How Animals Grieve (2013), and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016).
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