Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Animals and “Human” Nature June 23, 2010

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You may be surprised how many kids, when asked if humans are animals, say no! In order to help people feel a greater  connection to the natural world, our close ties with the animal kingdom (to which we do belong, by the way!) are something we need to emphasize more to people of all ages. Humans certainly have some amazing qualities that are not as obvious at first in the rest of the animal kingdom–the ones usually presented are the use of agriculture, music, and art–but the more I learn about animals the more I question even these definitions!  Leaf cutting ants have been shown to actually cultivate and care for a certain fungus, going so far as to ‘weed’ it of harmful parasites and ‘fertilize’ their crops. Some parrots (and an elephant!) have been shown dancing to music. And check out this amazing behavior by dolphins at the Sea World in Orlando. They create bubble rings under water (a skill they have to learn and then practice in order to do it properly) that they then push around and play with:

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I was first inspired to write this post after reading an article about how young birds learn their songs. Scientists studied the areas of the brain that learn speech in young songbirds and humans, and found that the same areas of the brain light up when both humans and birds are learning ‘language.’ Amazingly, this is especially true when both animals are sleeping. Studies have shown that kids learn language better when allowed to take a nap, and this seems to be true for baby birds as well. How amazing is that??! Think about this the next time you hear a bird singing–it used the same parts of its brain in the same way to learn its language just the way you did! The way we all did!

Finally, one more example of behavior that might seem unique to humans at first, but is truthfully anything but–one of my favorite videos on YouTube, and narrated by our old friend Sir David Attenborough. In this video Capuchin monkeys are tested for their understanding of fairness and sharing. In the first part the monkeys are put in separate but adjoining boxes. One monkey has a cup of nuts, and the other has a flint with which to open the container. The one monkey gives the flint to the other through a small hole between them, and then has to wait patiently to see if the other monkey will decide to share the reward with him or not.  In the next test, a monkey is given a biscuit reward in exchange for a white poker chip. This monkey is content until he sees that a different monkey gets a grape (a much better offering by Capuchin standards) in exchange for the same token. He was happy before, but now he would rather have nothing than take such an unfair offering. Take a look:

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I never cease to be amazed by the world around us. I find it fulfilling and wonderful to know that we share so much with our other animal neighbors. How lonely a world it would be, to be unique as humans in a world full of dull reflexive creatures, and how lucky that this is not the case!  In my opinion, this type of knowledge is what will really help inspire people to care about and save animals, and as scientists, educators, parents, etc. we all need to help to get this out to the public. Could you be as cavalier about the destruction of these animals once you knew a sleeping baby bird had some of the very same brain processes as your child?

When I think back on my own life and what I have witnessed in person, I can already think of a few examples of the amazing ways of animals. I’ve seen a small bird teach its young how to forage for food. I’ve seen a raccoon learn by trial and error how to crack and eat an egg. I’ve heard a brown-headed cowbird speak English. I’ve had a dog that would come over to me when I cried.

How fortunate for us to live in a world filled with such clever animal neighbors! On your next backyard safari, see if you can find any examples of animals behaving in ways you didn’t expect. I bet there will be more than you think.

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