[xmca] NYT article on animal social life

From: Steve Gabosch <sgabosch who-is-at comcast.net>
Date: Tue Jan 22 2008 - 12:35:57 PST

Some might find this NYTimes article on animal social life interesting.
- Steve

January 22, 2008
Political Animals (Yes, Animals)

As the candidates have shown us in the succulent telenovela that is
the 2008 presidential race, there are many ways to parry for political
power. You can go tough and steely in an orange hunter’s jacket, or
touchy-feely with a Kleenex packet. You can ally yourself with an
alpha male like Chuck Norris, befriend an alpha female like Oprah
Winfrey or split the difference and campaign with your mother. You can
seek the measured endorsement of the town elders or the restless
energy of the young, showily handle strange infants or furtively slam
your opponents.

Just as there are myriad strategies open to the human political animal
with White House ambitions, so there are a number of nonhuman animals
that behave like textbook politicians. Researchers who study highly
gregarious and relatively brainy species like rhesus monkeys, baboons,
dolphins, sperm whales, elephants and wolves have lately uncovered
evidence that the creatures engage in extraordinarily sophisticated
forms of politicking, often across large and far-flung social networks.

Male dolphins, for example, organize themselves into at least three
nested tiers of friends and accomplices, said Richard C. Connor of the
University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, rather like the way human
societies are constructed of small kin groups allied into larger
tribes allied into still larger nation-states. The dolphins maintain
their alliances through elaborately synchronized twists, leaps and
spins like Blue Angel pilots blazing their acrobatic fraternity on high.

Among elephants, it is the females who are the born politicians,
cultivating robust and lifelong social ties with at least 100 other
elephants, a task made easier by their power to communicate
infrasonically across miles of savanna floor. Wolves, it seems, leaven
their otherwise strongly hierarchical society with occasional displays
of populist umbrage, and if a pack leader proves a too-snappish
tyrant, subordinate wolves will collude to overthrow the top cur.

Wherever animals must pool their talents and numbers into cohesive
social groups, scientists said, the better to protect against
predators, defend or enlarge choice real estate or acquire mates, the
stage will be set for the appearance of political skills — the ability
to please and placate, manipulate and intimidate, trade favors and
scratch backs or, better yet, pluck those backs free of botflies and

Over time, the demands of a social animal’s social life may come to
swamp all other selective pressures in the environment, possibly
serving as the dominant spur for the evolution of ever-bigger vote-
tracking brains. And though we humans may vaguely disapprove of our
political impulses and harbor “Fountainhead” fantasies of pulling free
in full glory from the nattering tribe, in fact for us and other
highly social species there is no turning back. A lone wolf is a weak
wolf, a failure, with no chance it will thrive.

Dario Maestripieri, a primatologist at the University of Chicago, has
observed a similar dilemma in humans and the rhesus monkeys he studies.

“The paradox of a highly social species like rhesus monkeys and humans
is that our complex sociality is the reason for our success, but it’s
also the source of our greatest troubles,” he said. “Throughout human
history, you see that the worst problems for people almost always come
from other people, and it’s the same for the monkeys. You can put them
anywhere, but their main problem is always going to be other rhesus

As Dr. Maestripieri sees it, rhesus monkeys embody the concept
“Machiavellian” (and he accordingly named his recent popular book
about the macaques “Macachiavellian Intelligence”).

“Individuals don’t fight for food, space or resources,” Dr.
Maestripieri explained. “They fight for power.” With power and status,
he added, “they’ll have control over everything else.”

Rhesus monkeys, midsize omnivores with ruddy brown fur, long bearded
faces and disturbingly humanlike ears, are found throughout Asia,
including in many cities, where they, like everybody else, enjoy
harassing the tourists. The monkeys typically live in groups of 30 or
so, a majority of them genetically related females and their dependent

A female monkey’s status is usually determined by her mother’s status.
Male adults, as the ones who enter the group from the outside, must
establish their social positions from scratch, bite, baring of canines
and, most importantly, rallying their bases.

“Fighting is never something that occurs between two individuals,” Dr.
Maestripieri said. “Others get involved all the time, and your chances
of success depend on how many allies you have, how wide is your
network of support.”

Monkeys cultivate relationships by sitting close to their friends,
grooming them at every possible opportunity and going to their aid —
at least, when the photo op is right. “Rhesus males are quintessential
opportunists,” Dr. Maestripieri said. “They pretend they’re helping
others, but they only help adults, not infants. They only help those
who are higher in rank than they are, not lower. They intervene in
fights where they know they’re going to win anyway and where the risk
of being injured is small.”

In sum, he said, “they try to gain maximal benefits at minimal cost,
and that’s a strategy that seems to work” in advancing status.

Not all male primates pursue power by appealing to the gents. Among
olive baboons, for example, a young male adult who has left his natal
home and seeks to be elected into a new baboon group begins by making
friendly overtures toward a resident female who is not in estrous at
the moment and hence not being contested by other males of the troop.

“If the male is successful in forming a friendship with a female, that
gives him an opening with her relatives and allows him to work his way
into the whole female network,” said Barbara Smuts, a biologist at the
University of Michigan. “In olive baboons, friendships with females
can be much more important than political alliances with other males.”

Because males are often the so-called dispersing sex, while females
stay behind in the support network of their female kin, females form
the political backbone among many social mammals; the longer-lived the
species, the denser and more richly articulated that backbone is
likely to be.

With life spans rivaling ours, elephants are proving to possess some
of the most elaborate social networks yet observed, and their memories
for far-flung friends and relations are well in line with the species’
reputation. Elephant society is organized as a matriarchy, said George
Wittemyer, an elephant expert at the University of California,
Berkeley, with a given core group of maybe 10 elephants led by the
eldest resident female. That core group is together virtually all the
time, traveling over considerable distances, stopping to dig water
holes, looking for fresh foliage to uproot and devour.

“They’re constantly making decisions, debating among themselves, over
food, water and security,” Dr. Wittemyer said. “You can see it in the
field. You can hear them vocally disagree.” Typically, the matriarch
has the final say, and the others abide by her decision. If a faction
disagrees strongly enough and wants to try a different approach, “the
group will split up and meet back again later,” said Dr. Wittemyer.

Age has its privileges, he said, and the older females, even if they
are not the biggest, will often get the best spots to sleep and the
best food to eat. But it also has its responsibilities, and a
matriarch is often the one to lead the charge in the face of conflicts
with other elephants or predatory threats, sometimes to lethal effect.

Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University and his colleagues have found
surprising parallels between the elephant and another mammoth mammal,
the sperm whale, possessor of the largest brain, in absolute terms,
that the world has ever known. As with elephants, sperm whale society
is sexually segregated, the females clustering in oceanic
neighborhoods 40 degrees north or south of the Equator, and the males
preferring waters around the poles.

As with elephants, the core social unit is a clan of some 10 or 12
females and their offspring. Sperm whales also are highly vocal. They
communicate with one another using a Morse code-like pattern of
clicks. Each clan, Dr. Whitehead said, has a distinctive click dialect
that the members use to identify one another and that adults pass to
the young. In other words, he said, “It looks like they have a form of

Nobody knows what the whales may have to click and clack about, but it
could be a form of voting — time to stop here and synchronously dive
down in search of deep water squid, now time to resurface, move on,
dive again. Clans also seem to caucus on which males they like and
will mate with more or less as a group and which ones they will
collectively spurn. By all appearances, female sperm whales are
terrible size queens. Over the generations, they have consistently
voted in favor of enhanced male mass. Their dream candidate nowadays
is some fellow named Moby, and he’s three times their size.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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