5 Eerily Human Things You Won't Believe Animals Do
Humans live with the illusion that there is a distinct line between us and everything else in the animal kingdom. People are unique and independent, with our own special ambitions and traits, while animals fall pretty much into one of two categories: pets and dinner. That's why every once in a while we like to remind everyone of all of the insane ways animals are just like us. For instance ...
Marmosets Make Polite Conversation; Chimps Will Fake Laughter
We know that animals can communicate, but not like humans. An animal barks or roars to communicate simple things like, "Stay away or I'll kill you!" or "Let's fuck!" Humans, on the other hand, devote most of our words to the fact that we don't have anything to say -- we'll make small talk to avoid awkward silence with the cab driver; we'll fake a laugh to pretend we got the joke with a group of friends. You'd never see, say, monkeys doing that pointless shit, right? That kind of social anxiety takes an advanced brain.
"Oh God, I said 'you too' when I just meant 'thanks'!" -No monkey ever.
Well, maybe not.
Marmosets (a kind of South American monkey) share the otherwise exclusively human trait of chatting for the sake of it. Scientists have no idea what the monkeys are saying when they're chattering in groups, but have observed that they take turns shooting the shit. In fact, they're even more polite about it than most humans are -- waiting a few seconds after the other has finished speaking so as to avoid interrupting. Researchers observed conversations lasting for up to 30 minutes at a time, at which point, we suppose, even the marmosets made up an excuse to leave.
"Well, I should probably get back to flinging poop. Good talking to you."
The researchers note that chimps and other almost-human apes have a tendency to speak over the top of one another rather than engage in polite discourse. And that marmosets tend to chat more frequently with monkeys other than those whom they are mated with, which, when you think about it, is also an oddly human phenomenon.
And then you have chimpanzees. Scientists know that, chimps being highly playful creatures, most of them spend their time in groups jumping out from behind things, tackling each other, throwing their poop around, etc. Chimp stuff. But in a study of chimp behavior done by researchers at the University of Portsmouth, they found that chimps had two distinct kinds of "laughter" during play time. The ones that were actively engaged in play responded with ordinary laughter, but the other, nearby chimps made a much more forced, less intense, and more deliberate sound. In other words, it was more like the chimp equivalent of you going "heh" after your dad tells a particularly horrid joke.
Or when the alpha chimp tells his racist joke about the two bonobos who walk into a bar.
The researchers suggest that this is the way a chimpanzee who isn't actively engaged in the joke signals to the others "I, too, am having fun." In other words, they're being polite and assuring the others that they aren't moody assholes, a level of social etiquette that even some humans have failed to master.
Rats Laugh When You Tickle Them
We don't know if this is the most adorable experiment ever conducted, or the most unsettling. Either way, scientists spent two weeks tickling some rats, and discovered that rats not only love being tickled but they actually giggle while it's happening.
We know what you're probably wondering (or, at least, one of several hundred things you're probably wondering): How do we know that the rats actually enjoy it and are not just squeaking in anguish and confusion? Well, first they conditioned the rats to be afraid of a certain audio tone -- the rats would freeze up and become nervous whenever the sound was played. But then, if they tickled the rats beforehand, the rats showed less physical and hormonal signs of fear when they heard the sound.
On top of that, the sounds that the rats made while being tickled were the same sounds they made when they were playing with other rats, suggesting that they are the rat equivalent of giggling. If the researchers stopped tickling, the rats would often chase their teasing hands around the tank to try to coax more tickles. There are social intricacies to be found as well, since the fun-lovers are more likely to spend time with like-minded fellows.
Furthermore, in a weirdly specific human parallel, the rats that didn't enjoy the interactions (and didn't laugh) tended to be neurotic and antisocial. And because scientists love playing God, they've selectively bred the most playful of the rats over the course of several generations to create a genetically super-ticklish, loud-laughing breed. That definitely won't make it weird when we poison or trap the little bastards years from now.
On the other hand, we can start baiting traps with feathers instead of precious cheese or peanut butter.
Cows Have Best Friends
Based on everything we know, cows are fat, lazy, and devoid of personality. They're smarter than most rocks, eject less methane than some military aircraft, but are otherwise only useful because a cow is the first step to a cheeseburger.
And horses are much harder to tip.
In reality, these vacant-looking animals are more emotionally complex than given credit for, and have the capacity to form intimate social bonds. For the sake of animal welfare, Krista McLennan led a study that tracked how heifers respond to isolation. The doctoral student from Northampton University monitored several physiological parameters such as cortisol levels (which correspond with stress) and heart rate.
McLennan found that not only do cows prefer the company of other specific cows but that they even pick out best friends -- the cows' vital signs were most favorable when paired with their best friend, as opposed to a random stranger cow. Without their BFFs, they got sad. And with the noble heifers' demeanor negatively affected, milk production dropped. Just like every human on the Internet, cows can be socially awkward and become stressed when removed from their buddies. In the modern era of big-money farming, this scenario is commonplace, and cows are constantly separated then forced into new groups, like some kind of bovine speed dating.
"Wait, you like eating grass and staring blankly all day? No way, me too!"
We have no idea what society is supposed to do with this information (slaughter them in pairs, with their friends? That only seems weirder). We guess just keep in mind the next time you drive past a pasture that the cow you see grazing out there might have more close friends than you do.
Jay Birds Hold Funerals for Their Dead
You probably assume that human beings are the only creatures that hold ceremonies to grieve for the dead, and for the most part you're right. Funerals are a rather counterintuitive concept, especially given that, if there's something nearby that's killing members of your species, the last thing you want to do is gather all your friends and relatives in that place at the same time.
But there's at least one other animal that comes together in these times of anguish -- birds. Specifically, in a study conducted in 2012, researchers at the University of California, Davis discovered that the western jay has a tendency to hold a kind of funeral ceremony upon discovery of a dead colleague.
"And though Jay could not fly through that window, he will forever fly in our hearts ..."
Don't worry: They didn't study this by approaching a flock of jays and shooting one of them with a sniper rifle. Fortunately, the scientists already had a dead jay on hand. So they just dropped it where others were foraging and watched the live birds' reactions to it. When one of them discovered the dead bird, it let out a loud cry that attracted other birds of the species, which came from all directions to gather around their fallen comrade in what the researchers described as "cacophonous aggregations." The attending birds were so distressed that they halted their usual foraging behavior for more than a day. The scientists presumably watched their devastated little bird tears and wails of sadness and nodded, taking notes.
The birds were also able to distinguish between actual dead birds and ingenious wooden decoys made to look like dead birds. In much the same way as we don't fall to our knees in anguish when we see a mannequin lying in the street, the jays were at least savvy enough to realize when they were being taken for a ride. In another test presumably intended to drive the birds past the brink of insanity, the researchers mounted a dead but stuffed bird in the jays' foraging grounds, and the birds engaged in a kind of "mobbing" behavior that indicated that they thought it was alive, but sick in some way.
Something like this, we imagine.
So, OK, they're not super-geniuses, but still, it's nice that they care.
Pigeons Understand Statistics Better Than We Do
Pigeons, commonly known as the rats of the sky, are the dumbest, most ubiquitous birds on Earth. Or so we assume. It might surprise you to learn that they would probably beat your ass on a game show.
That's pretty big talk for a species that hasn't invented gunpowder, pigeons.
Specifically, the old show Let's Make a Deal, which is famous among statisticians for spawning a statistical aberration known as the "Monty Hall problem," named after the show's host. In short, Monty Hall presents three doors and tells you that a brand new car is behind one of them, but the other two contain goats or some other hilarious "fuck you" prize. You pick one door, but instead of telling you what's behind it, Hall opens one of the other two doors that contains a goat, and asks you whether you want to change your decision.
Most people stick with their initial instinct, because they still have a 1 in 2 chance of getting the car, right? Wrong! In reality, you still have a 2 in 3 chance of being wrong, which means that switching to the other door will get you the car 66 percent of the time. It seems absurd, and it absolutely is, but if you don't believe it, there are simulations that prove it (note: you cannot actually win a car in the simulation).
Nor a goat.
What does this have to do with pigeons? Well, as we said, most people faced with this dilemma choose not to change their original decision, because we just can't get our heads around it. Not so for pigeons. A study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology showed that pigeons discover the secret to the Monty Hall problem more quickly than humans do, even when a considerable number of professional human mathematicians still refuse to believe.
They replicated the problem with colored keys that lit up when pecked, because getting them to understand doors and television sets would be stretching it a little. Upon choosing a key, one of the other keys would deactivate, signaling a wrong answer. The birds that chose the right one out of those two were rewarded with food, and the wrong one led to nothing but a few free non-eating moments to think about how not to get caught by scientists the next time.
Possibly accompanied by a few disappointed head shakes from the pigeon's father.
At first, a lot of them chose the wrong one like us and didn't switch, or maybe they didn't want to attract too much attention by solving it in the first go. But after some time, all of the test birds started switching, every single time. They learned that the third door has the highest chance of having the prize, so technically goddamn pigeons deserve those trips to Spain and refrigerators more than we do.
Related Reading: You know what else animals have in common with people? Getting fucked up. Also? Birds password-protect their nests. And parrots name their babies! Which probably means we should stop having Parrot Meat Taco Tuesdays at Cracked.