Dan Rattiner's Stories

Animals on the March: Crows, Giraffes, Monkeys, Elephants, Gorillas and Sheepdogs

A recent scientific study concludes that people are attracted to the smell of others who share the same political views.

This study was done by social scientists at Brown, Harvard and Penn State. They taped gauze pads to the armpits of 21 subjects, left them on for 24 hours, gathered them up, and then asked 125 volunteers to smell each gauze pads and report if they were repulsed or attracted to that smell. Because they had asked all the subjects to write down their political beliefs when they signed up, they were able to determine that liberals were attracted to the smell of other liberals and conservatives were attracted to the smell of other conservatives.

As you know, smell is one of the most important things in the early stages of courtship. Yet here was this study that brought the political views first and smell second.

Arthur C. Brooks, who wrote about this in an opinion piece in The New York Times, wondered what happens when, after time, as often is the case, a person’s political views change. He had no answer to this, but his personal experience was he married a woman who shared his liberal views, who, 23 years later, is still with him even though he has drifted to a more conservative position. He ventured that she must be putting up with him. Here he was, now suffering from cognitive-olfactory dissonance.

In that same week, in The Times, I read about some scientists who are now studying the social behavior of giraffes after finding that, as one of them put it, they are a species that has received little attention from scientists.

“Giraffes are the ‘forgotten megafauna,’” said Julian Fennessy, the executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

“When I first became interested in giraffes in 2008,” said Megan Strauss of the University of Minnesota, “I was surprised to see how little had been done.”

Now much research has been done. And we know a lot. We know, for example, that giraffes have very large eyes that provide panoramic vision. They can see things clearly not only in front of them, but also behind. They also see very far away. They have prehistoric lips and teeth that can, when used in conjunction with their 18-inch tongues, separate the leaves they want to eat from those they don’t. They can also disassemble branches and twigs and take out berries from the leaves. The dexterity of their mouths compares favorably to the dexterity of the human hand.

Then there is behavior. By using helicopters, infrared, tagging, general observation and DNA testing of scat, hair and saliva, they have learned that the females tend to hang out together and form long-term friendships. Studies show cases where females in a herd often have no contact whatsoever with one particular female, but then spend lots of time enjoying the company of several other females for years and years.

Dr. Kerryn Carter, a zoologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, has speculated about these long-term female friendships. She thinks they communicate about the best feeding grounds, about calf caretaking, or just “to reduce stress by having somebody near by.”

Natalie Angier wrote the story of one mother giraffe who returned again and again in the company of other females to a place where earlier a lion had run off with one of her baby calves. She exhibited great grief each time.

As for the males, they spend their days trying out different strategies to arrange mating opportunities with the females. One strategy exhibited by young males is to emulate the behavior of older males. These older males, which the researchers call alpha males, are treasured by the females and can mate with them most anytime. The older males lose the cute bits of fur that grow on their horns when young. They also develop a bony mass on the top of their forehead, which the women apparently like. Their neck muscles become pronounced. They stand up proud, their necks bringing them up to their full 20-foot height.

A young buck, though, particularly one new to the mating game, will show up and try to see if this will work. He struts around, standing tall, puffing out his neck, prodding the females, sniffing their urine for signs of estrus, letting them know he’s the man.

But he’s the man only until an alpha male appears. When one does, he immediately ducks down and tries to make himself look meek and small. He doesn’t even look at the females.

Who me? I wasn’t doing anything.

Fact is, if he doesn’t, the alpha male can give him a good whupping. Older males will attack by swinging their necks around and using their heads as clubs. Hitting the youth hard in the softer neck, he can break his neck. He can even kill him.

And then there are lots of other interesting studies into animal behavior. One involved a chimpanzee in a zoo in Sweden. This chimpanzee expressed himself from time to time by throwing rocks at the tourists coming to visit him. But what really was remarkable was when the keepers saw him spend time, before the zoo opened, finding small rocks and making a pile out of them. He’d be ready.

We know that certain mammals can look in a mirror and clearly realize they are looking at themselves. And we know crows can find food by working in teams to lower a rope to get at it.

I have two dog stories. One is about the watchdog instincts many of them exhibit. A few years ago my wife and I held a yard sale in front of the garage at the top of our driveway. When a car would pull up and people got out by the curb on the street below, our dog, a sheepdog, would sound the alarm, run down the driveway and bark and prance with these people as they took the walk up. After doing this about a dozen times, he began doing a more abbreviated version. He’d sound the alarm, then run a few feet down the driveway, wait for them to come up and then prance and wag his tail as he escorted them the rest of the way. Then after a few of these, his reaction got even shorter. He’d see a car pull up and just not get up. He’d bark and bark until they arrived. After that, he gave up the barking. He’d just thump his tail. And after that, he just napped as everybody went up and down.

The other story took place on a sheep farm in New Zealand. We spent a month there not long ago. We were in a barn at the foot of a hill, and we were watching a farmer shearing his sheep. A dog lay in the corner.

“Is that an Australian sheepdog?” I asked.

“Yup,” the farmer said.

“I’m told they are the smartest of all dogs,” I said.

“Henry!” the farmer shouted at the dog. He perked up his ears. “Get me another one.”

The dog leaped to his feet, ran up the hill to the top of the pasture, separated out one sheep from the herd, and as it baaaaed and fulminated, blocked its attempts to get back to the herd and shouldered it back down the hill to us in the barn.

Then he lay back down in the corner and went back to sleep.

Treat Power Cartoon By Dan Rattiner
Cartoon by Dan Rattiner
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