Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the first to use that terrifying and unforgettable phrase to evoke the world described by unsentimental Darwinian science: ‘Nature red in tooth and claw.’
But in this smart, funny and thoroughly engaging book, Ashley Ward — a Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of Sydney (though he started his career at the Scarborough Sea Life Centre) — questions that notion, exploring the vital importance of cooperation as well as competition throughout the animal kingdom.
Before we get too warm and fuzzy about this though, we should also note that co-operating animals get together primarily to . . . exploit, kill and eat other animals.
Take his opening scene from the rainforests of northern Trinidad. As dusk falls, vampire bats leave their daytime lair, an abandoned house deep in undergrowth, to look for blood.
Author Ashley Ward is a Professor of Animal Behaviour at University of Sydney, and in her book, The Social Lives of Animals, she reveals the the rich emotional lives of elephants and their incredible memories
Any sleeping mammal will do — including humans, though goats seem to be a favourite. ‘Stealthily the bat alights on the ground and scurries in ungainly fashion towards its victim . . . cutting through the skin into flesh with scalpel-like teeth . . .’
The vampire bat has anti-coagulant in its saliva, so the blood just keeps flowing, and it can guzzle a third of its bodyweight in blood in one night. Then it’s home before dawn. But here’s the co-operation: any fellow vampire bat in the colony that has failed to find a meal will be fed by its fellow bats, who will regurgitate blood for it to swallow.
For the goat though, such examples of heart-warming ‘sociality’, as biologists call it, may be less convincing.
Then there’s the rich emotional lives of elephants, and their incredible memories.
Even recordings of the call of a female elephant who left her family 12 years earlier ‘were greeted noisily by her former associates’, while the mere smell of their mother in some adult zoo elephants ‘produced a stirring, unmistakable response . . . nearly 30 years since they parted from her’.
Equally, while one can only wonder at the spectacular sociality that is a locust swarm, it’s hardly good news for the farmers of the Horn of Africa, say, whose crops can be devastated in a single day.
Worse still, Ward explains, and ‘deeply sinister’ is the fact that, as well as eating crops, the voracious locusts will enthusiastically eat each other. That’s the reason they keep moving on. Locusts don’t want other locusts to get up too close behind them, or ‘they get their bums chewed off’. This must be the single most bizarre revelation in the book.
The Social Lives of Animals by Ashley Ward (Profile £20, 386pp)
Professor Ward writes beautifully, though sometimes you might wish he wasn’t quite so vivid. ‘If you’ve ever lain awake at night wondering what whale sh*t looks like,’ he writes helpfully, ‘let me enlighten you.’
And in a single line he can suggest a whole, miraculous natural landscape that we will never see. He describes krill —those billions of tiny shrimp upon whom so many species and ecosystems depend — as rising up from the icy depths of the Southern Ocean where they were laid as eggs, finally arriving at the underside of the ice on the sea where ‘they graze algae from the frozen surface like herds of tiny, upside-down wildebeest’.
Again and again, herd animals hold a mirror up to our own human behaviour, sometimes uncomfortably. Just like us, the most social and co-operative animals can go to war with each other. Ants and termites have been in bitter conflict for millions of years, the ants invading one of those spectacular termite mounds in the hope of carrying off as many larvae as possible for food.
When they first attack, the termites raise the alarm by banging their heads against the interior walls of the mound, whereupon the soldier termites mass at the entrances to the fortress, forming a cordon. ‘The fighting is vicious; casualties mount rapidly,’ with the largest ants taking on the termites directly, while smaller ants try to sneak past the cordon and get inside.
The worker termites will use fresh mud to seal up their own Queen in her royal chamber for safety, while others resort to ever more desperate tactics to drive the ants off.
Incredibly, some older termites can turn themselves into su.i.ci.de bombers: they carry ‘a pouch of blue, copper-based crystals on their backs,’ and when an attacking ant bites into it, there follows ‘a mini explosion that showers the attackers in noxious chemicals’. As for what happens when Amazon ants go up against Formica ants, and the Queens themselves go head to head . . . it’s pure horror film.
So too is the portrayal of sperm whales forming a defensive pod to fight off far greater numbers of attacking Orcas. It’s a long drawn-out and very bloody business.
For consolation, there are the more endearing behaviours of cows. Daft young heifers are well-known for risk-taking, exploring anything new and often getting into scrapes, but ‘old cows really don’t like surprises’, they’re creatures of routine, and take a long time to get used to strangers. Remind you of any other species? We are indeed herd animals ourselves, ‘sheeple’ as the contemporary insult has it.
We’re capable of the highest courage and self-sacrifice in the defence of others, but as the greatest of all naturalists, Charles Darwin, pointed out, we are also very easily led and dominated: ‘Complete subjugation generally depends on an animal being social in its habits.’
If we can draw any lessons from nature (and this is always debatable), perhaps it means that at least we should choose our leaders wisely.